Secondary school pupils could spread coronavirus as easily as adults, according to new research, in a blow to plans to resume education fully next month.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has said PHE’s conclusions due to be published later this year suggest that bringing children back to the classroom in September will not fuel the pandemic.
However, The Times reported that the scientists who worked on the study are unhappy with the way their findings, which have not yet been fully analysed, have been used by ministers.
Their preliminary results suggest primary schools pose little danger, with the 9,000 tested so far offering up just six positive results, according to the newspaper.
But the study, which divided children into under-tens and over-tens, reportedly discovered that the risks increased among the older group.
One source with knowledge of the research told The Times that as children aged “their bodies start to act like small adults” in passing on the virus more effectively – something also seen in other studies.
Another source said that more cases of the virus were being seen among Year 6 and teenage children of key workers, and that these were emerging in clusters, suggesting pupils were being infected at school.
The PHE researchers reportedly monitored levels of infection and antibodies in nearly 140 schools across the country.
It showed “very, very few positive swabs and these were mainly in staff members”, a source told the paper.
“Emerging data show that in (younger) children, Covid-19 is a silent infection, with no or minimal transmission,” they said.
“The only time (primary) school children are at risk is if a child brings it into the school from home. Importantly, it does not seem to work the other way around.”
Nevertheless, the report is likely to heighten concerns among teaching unions concerned about whether schools can safely return in the way ministers intend.
A PHE spokesperson said: “PHE analysis of recorded cases and outbreaks in educational settings in England is currently undergoing pre-publication verification and review, and will be published in due course.
“It appears to show that SARS-CoV-2 infections and outbreaks were uncommon in educational settings during the first month after the easing of national lockdown in England.”
“Additionally, a nationwide surveillance programme examining antibody prevalence in schoolchildren (sKIDs), is being analysed and should be published in the coming weeks.
“These publications combined will give the most complete picture of the landscape of Covid-19 in educational settings that we have seen to date.”
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson has insisted that getting all children back to school full-time in England next month is the “right thing for everybody”.
Teachers, scientists, opposition politicians and the children’s commissioner for England Anne Longfield have all called for improvements to testing before pupils return in September.
But speaking to reporters at a school in east London, Mr Johnson said he hoped schools would not be forced to close as a result of local action, adding it is the “last thing” that the Government wants to do.
He said: “But clearly what we are doing – the way we are trying to manage the Covid pandemic – is to have local measures in place and local test and trace to introduce restrictions where that’s necessary.
“But, as we have all said, the last thing we want to do is to close schools. We think that education is the priority for the country and that is simple social justice.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said heads supported the full reopening of schools in September and the pledge to make it a national priority.
But he added: “We are concerned about the lack of a national plan B if there is a second wave of coronavirus and there is a second national shutdown.
“The Government guidance requires schools to have in place their own contingency plans which are based on a return to remote education in the event of local closures.”
Mr Barton said: “We would like to see more thought given to blended learning as a back-up plan which could be a rota system of children in for one week and then learning at home for one week. This would be better than children returning solely to remote education.
“But we need some national modelling on how this might work informed by scientific advice so there is an off-the-shelf alternative that is ready to go.”