It won’t be safe to reopen schools in England to wider numbers of children from 1 June, according to a group of senior scientists.
The Independent Sage committee said on Friday that more time is needed to set up tracking and tracing procedures to tackle any new coronavirus outbreak.
The committee is separate from the Tories’ official advisers. These helpfully advised on Friday that evidence about the infectivity of children is “inconclusive”.
Chair of the independent committee, former government chief scientist Sir David King, said the risk to children would be halved if they returned on 15 June instead.
And delaying a wider return until September would reduce the risks even further.
King said that the evidence showed “that 1 June is simply too early to go back”.
“By going ahead with this dangerous decision, the government is further risking the health of our communities and the likelihood of a second spike,” he said.
The news comes as big meetings of parents have expressed deep concerns about a 1 June return.
Many fear that this will allow the disease to spread through whole areas. And the fact that black and minority ethnic (BAME) people are four times more likely to die from the disease is adding to people’s anger.
Parent Caroline has a child in year one in a school in Redbridge, east London. “A lot of parents are concerned about children and staff,” she told a parents' meeting on Thursday.
“The school has a high number of BAME people and my overall feeling is it’s not safe.”
The meeting attracted over 580 people - a sign of the anxiety that exists among many parents.
Parent Habiba pointed out that a lot of BAME children live in multi-generational households, pushing up the risk of infection. And parent Jocelyn added, “This is racism.
“You need to take the lead,” she said, addressing councillors in the meeting. “If not, the community will take the lead as the community is suffering.”
Some 185 parents joined a meeting in Coventry this week, and 140 in Hackney, east London.
Teacher Chris described how a meeting had transformed the situation. “The local authority has massively shifted to now agree schools in Coventry should not be planning for a 1 June opening,” he said.
Smaller meetings took place in Lambeth and Wandsworth in south London.
Lambeth parent Jamie warned, “The fatalities are still in the 100s. Infection is still spreading. There’s no efficient test, trace and isolate system in place.”
Other parents warned about the lack of protection for people with conditions such as diabetes, or who live with people who have health problems.
Meanwhile childcare and early years workers have said that childcare settings could be the “next care homes” in terms of virus cases.
Hundreds of childcare workers have signed a petition against the unsafe reopening of childcare settings.
Workers point out that it is impossible to social distance from very young children and babies, who need close personal care.
Pre-school manager Lyndsey said, “Schools have been asked to work with limited numbers of children, whereas private nurseries and other settings are being urged to open our doors for ALL children.
“If children can be asymptomatic carriers of Covid-19, how will we know - without testing - that we are infection-free?”
While many parents fear sending their children back, they also face huge pressures.
One parent in Southwark described how they didn’t want to send their two-year old to an unsafe nursery, but risked losing the place if they did not.
Others are under pressure to return to work, or fear that being at home for long periods could harm children.
But the Tories are under pressure too. Widespread concern and opposition - plus threats to refuse to return - has pushed some councils to say it is not safe to reopen from 1 June.
Others have said they will back any school that don’t open due to safety concerns.
It is possible for workers to resist. Stefan Simms, divisional NEU secretary in Ealing, west London, described how nearly half the primary schools in his area have agreed a statement saying workers will not return until union safety guidance is met.
In other areas, some schools have pledged not to reopen until later in June after pressure from unions.
Any success in pushing back the Tories is welcome. But there is still a huge battle to be fought.
In areas where councils have said it isn’t safe, some schools will still reopen.
Some workers report that the definition of “vulnerable” children is being extended to get greater numbers back into schools.
Others say that staff members who were at home due to health conditions are now being added onto rotas.
And some trade union activists described good progress in their schools, only to face obstacles from some union officials.
But anger at the Tories, and fear over what their plans could lead to, is also drawing more people into battle.
Venda, a teacher and NEU member in Redbridge, told a meeting against an unsafe return this week, “Workers are not powerless. We’re just made to feel like that day in, day out in our working life.
“Our union has grown so much. I used to think if we got 50 to a union meeting we had done really well. Our last branch meeting was 310.
“We realise our power now.”
All of those resisting an unsafe return to schools, nurseries, childcare settings and other workplaces need support. An unsafe return will mean more deaths - and it will be poorer, more vulnerable people who will suffer the most.
There is a fight on and everyone has to push to halt unsafe opening of schools.