Research has found little evidence that coronavirus can be spread widely in schools, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, has said, as he argued that parents in England could be confident about sending their children back in September.
In a statement, Williamson pointed to a yet-to-be-published study that he said showed there was little transmission of Covid-19 in schools.
“There is also growing confidence among parents about their children returning,” Williamson said. “This is down to the hard work of school staff across the country who are putting in place a range of protective measures to prepare to welcome back all pupils at the start of term.
“We have always been and will continue to be guided by the best scientific and medical advice. The latest research, which is expected to be published later this year – one of the largest studies on the coronavirus in schools in the world – makes it clear there is little evidence that the virus is transmitted at school.”
This appears to be a reference to a study by Public Health England, which examined transmission among 20,000 pupils and teachers in 100 schools across England at the end of the summer term.
Schools in England are due to reopen in four weeks’ time for what the government has promised will be a full-time schedule for all pupils. There are concerns that other elements of society or the economy may need to be closed to make up for the spread of the virus in schools.
On Sunday the children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, said the government should improve its test and trace programme and bring in routine coronavirus testing for teachers and pupils.
Nick Gibb, the schools minister, rejected the idea of routine testing, saying tests would be carried out only if someone showed Covid symptoms.
Prof Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and a member of the government’s Sage scientific advisory group, said children needed to be back at school.
“For broader society, look, I think it’s also clear that reopening schools is one of the least risky things we can do,” he said on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“Anything we do that reopens society will add a small or a larger amount to the overall population reproductive number, and for schools we believe that it’s a relatively minor player, it would add little to the overall population R,” he added, referring to the rate of transmission.
Teaching unions have expressed concern about the lack of a contingency plan if fully reopening schools is shown to bring a significant rise in infection rate. Geoff Barton, the head of the Association of School and College Leaders, has said one option could be pupils attending on alternate weeks.
But Viner said such approaches “appear to make very little difference and make little difference to the risk to teachers”.
Asked about the idea of week-on, week-off attendance, the care minister Helen Whately told the BBC: “Our priority is to make sure that children are fully back in school come the autumn.”
She added: “Schools are safe and there are extra measures that schools are being advised by Public Health England to take – for instance, to have staggered start and finish times, staggered breaks, to teach children in bubbles, and teachers can enforce, encourage hand washing, hand sanitising, so all the steps that will make schools even safer for our children to be back.”