The risks of catching flu or being involved in a road accident are “higher” than contracting coronavirus for schoolchildren, England’s deputy chief medical officer has said.
Dr Jenny Harries told Sky News she understands why parents are wary, but said a well-controlled school environment “should be a safe one” considering the information now available about COVID-19.
“The long term harms of children not attending school significantly, we think, outweigh those potential risks,” she said.
“No environment is completely risk-free.
“Every time a parent sends their child off to school pre-COVID they may have been involved in a road traffic accident, there are all sorts of things.
“In fact that risk, or the risk from seasonal flu, we think is probably higher than the current risk of COVID.”
She added: “Obviously, parents’ worst nightmare would be the death of a child, and we know that is an exceptionally rare event.
“We also know that children very rarely get serious disease and get hospitalised, and when children do get infection it is usually very mild and sometimes asymptomatic.
“So overall, the risk to the child themselves is very, very small.”
She said Public Health England would continue to “actively monitor” children at school.
But she stressed all studies so far suggest that infection rates and transmission rates in primary schools are low.
Older children in secondary schools are likely to have higher transmission and infection rates, but these could still be lower than the adult population, Dr Harries said.
A recent PHE study of coronavirus outbreaks – defined as two or more linked cases – found that children are more likely to catch the virus at home, usually from a parent, than at school, and that transmission between students is very rare.
Asked about suggestions Donald Trump is intending to fast-track approval and buy up the possible Oxford vaccine, Dr Harries said: “We have a global crisis… it’s really important that everyone around the world has fair and safe access to vaccine development.
“Obviously those countries which are more developed have the facilities to develop the vaccine and get it safely out to their populations. But I think all public health colleagues would be wanting fair distribution.”
Dr Harries and Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, were joined by the chief medical officers and deputy chief medical officers for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales at the weekend in saying children should return to school during the pandemic.
Professor Whitty acknowledged that schoolchildren would undoubtedly bring households together who wouldn’t come into contact if schools were closed, as well as putting “pressure” on the R number – the measure of how many people on average each infected person transmits the virus on to.
“If that happens we will have to respond,” said the chief medical officer, adding that this could lead to targeted local interventions resulting in the closure of pubs and shops.