Studies undermine Williamson’s ‘little evidence’ claim on school risks

Hazards campaign news release, 11 August 2020 (No embargo)

A series of studies, including two in recent days from UK experts, discredit claims by education secretary Gavin Williamson that there is ‘little evidence’ of a Covid-19 transmission risk in schools, workplace safety advocates have warned.

The safe-to-return claim by Gavin Williamson is patently untrue and could drive an upturn in Covid-19 cases.

“The safe-to-return claim by Gavin Williamson is patently untrue and could drive an upturn in Covid-19 cases,” said Janet Newsham, the chair of the national Hazards Campaign. “The education secretary is either ignorant of or choosing to ignore considerable evidence of outbreak risks in schools.  He is also failing to acknowledge the detrimental consequences of a ‘stop-start’ disruption to schooling and the economy as local flare-ups continue.”

The campaigners point to a study1 published on 24 July that concluded there is “evidence of robust spread of SARS-CoV-2 in high schools, and more limited spread in primary schools. Some countries with relatively large class sizes in primary schools (eg. Chile and Israel) reported sizeable outbreaks in some of those schools.” The paper, co-authored by Muge Cevik from the NHS Lothian Infection Service and the University of St Andrews, noted “these reports suggest that classroom crowding and other factors related to social distancing in classrooms/schools may play a role in the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in primary schools. Those findings should have implications for school openings in different age groups of children, and they suggest the need to better protect adults over the age of 60 during the community spread of SARS-CoV-2.”

A second study2 published on 3 August by scientists from University College London (UCL) and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found current testing and contact tracing levels are not sufficient to prevent a second wave of coronavirus after schools reopen. The researchers, who found the track-trace-isolate system was not up to the task, warned: “Without sufficient coverage of a test-trace-isolate strategy the UK risks a serious second epidemic peak either in December or February.”

The Hazards Campaign is also concerned the move will coincide with a relaxation of lockdown rules and government pressure for a reduction in working from home. “The government is failing to take adequate account of a simultaneous wider return to work, which our tracking of UK workplace clusters indicates could be the focus for increasing local outbreaks in offices, factories and other workplaces,” Newsham said. “We have the double jeopardy of return to schools without the essential trace-trace-isolate system in place and a return to work with oversight by workplace safety regulators at a virtual standstill.”

Newsham concluded: “Education in the UK is being damaged by neglected and dangerous infrastructure, poorly resourced classrooms and education staff stressed-out through understaffing and overwork,” said Newsham. “Crowding kids back into these schools is a unnecessary gamble and could be counterproductive, setting back Covid-19 prevent efforts and lead to further shutdowns.”

Latest Public Health England figures3 show workplace cases are an increasing proportion of overall Covid-19 infections and the great majority of cases are in working age people.

Notes to editors

Hazards Campaign coronavirus hub:

  1. Edward Goldstein, Marc Lipsitch, Muge Cevik, On the effect of age on the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in households, schools and the community, medRxiv preprint, 24 July 2020. doi:
  2. Jasmina Panovska-Griffiths and others, Determining the optimal strategy for reopening schools, the impact of test and trace interventions, and the risk of occurrence of a second COVID-19 epidemic wave in the UK: a modelling study, Lancet Child and Adolescent Health, Online first 3 August 2020. DOI:
  3. Weekly Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Surveillance Report, Week 32, PHE, 7 August 2020

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