Osama Rahman admitted children could become dangerous super spreaders because they suffer mild or no symptoms
Boris Johnson’s school reopening plans in chaos as a government scientific advisor admitted there is a ‘low confidence’ that pupils can’t spread coronavirus and that ministers have no idea if it will trigger a second wave in a ‘shocking and disturbing’ car-crash Commons appearance.
Teachers’ unions have slammed the Government over a fear that opening schools could risk spreading coronavirus despite previous claims children cannot infect others.
The Department of Education’s chief scientific adviser said today that there is not conclusive evidence that pupils cannot infect their parents and other relatives with Covid-19.
Osama Rahman also said that Number 10 has not undertaken any modelling to forecast what sort of rise could result from such transmission if children are able to pass on the virus.
National Education Union chief Dr Mary Bousted, who opposes a June 1 reopening, said his evidence was ‘staggering and frightening’.
Dr Patrick Roach, NASUWT General Secretary, said: ‘The admissions by the Department for Education’s Chief Scientific Adviser are truly shocking and disturbing.
‘The Government has simply not provided a single shred of evidence that opening schools from June 1st will be safe for children or for teachers.’
It came after Mr Rahman said a growing body of evidence had suggested children were much more likely to suffer much mild or no coronavirus symptoms compared to adults.
But he admitted this could threaten outbreaks in crowded schools which are unable to enforce social distancing, and potentially lead to pupils spreading the disease in the wider community.
Dr Roach demanded that the Government provide proof that it will be safe to sent pupils and teachers back to school next month.
‘The Government’s health and safety guidance to make schools ‘COVID-19-secure’ is also woefully inadequate, and has done nothing to assure teachers or parents that it will be safe for schools to open to more children,’ he said.
‘Schools have been placed in a situation where the wrong decision will result in people becoming seriously ill and dying.
‘The Government must now publish the scientific evidence it is relying on to claim that it will be safe for children to return to schools from June 1st.’
Pictured: Boris Johnson during Prime Minister Questions at the House of Commons in London, Britain, 13 May 2020, as the lockdown eases
Boris Johnson plans to send pupils in reception, Year 1 and Year 6 back to schools in England from the start of next month as part of a phased easing of lockdown.
But the plans have been slammed as ‘reckless’ by teaching unions who are demanding assurances for school staff.
Speaking at a virtual House of Commons Science and Technology Committee meeting today, Mr Rahman was grilled by SNP MP Carol Monaghan.
The MP for Glasgow North West said: ‘As a former teacher I don’t think the profession is going to be at all satisfied by what we’re hearing at the moment.’
She pressed him on transmission of the virus among young children, and whether their mild symptoms made them more likely to be super-spreaders.
Mr Rahman said: ‘SAGE (The Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) has a low degree of confidence that they might transmit it less.
‘The view is that there is no evidence that children transmit virus more than adults, some studies that they might transmit it less than adults. But this science is mixed, and it’s quite early.’
Asked by Mrs Monaghan whether this meant that schools could become hotspots where children can catch the disease and spread it further, Mr Rahman said: ‘Possibly, depending on school sizes.’
Scientific advisers to the Home Office, Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government, also took questions from the Commons committee.
It also emerged that:
- Chancellor Rishi Sunak has refused to rule out pay freezes and tax hikes to cover £300bn coronavirus bill after Treasury plans leak
- Commuters packed onto Tube and trains today after Boris Johnson urged workers to return – but social distancing proved impossible on limited services
- Three quarters of Britons say it is ‘unacceptable’ to let nannies and cleaners come to work in your home during the lockdown despite the Government relaxing rules, a survey revealed today
- Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said Britons booking holidays abroad this summer are doing so at their own risk
- GDP fell by a record 5.8% in March – the largest fall on record after just one week of lockdown – but experts say the worst is still to come
- Union bosses warned a public sector pay freeze would be a ‘betrayal’… while millions of private sector workers have their pay cut and face losing their jobs in months
The worrying admission comes as unions demand ministers ‘step back’ from plans to reopen schools in England from June 1, saying there is not enough ‘protection’ for staff and pupils.
A joint statement issued through the Trades Union Congress complains of a ‘lack of understanding’ of the risks faced by teachers and children, with no provision for social distancing.
The intervention came as Education Secretary Gavin Williamson admitted the plan to get some primary school years back next month was ‘challenging’.
But he added the government was following ‘the best scientific and medical advice’. and stressed that tests will be available for any staff and children with symptoms.
Schools like this one in Altrincham have stayed open for vulnerable children and key worker families, but ministers want more pupils to return from June 1
Speaking at a virtual House of Commons Science and Technology Committee meeting today, Mr Rahman (left) was grilled by SNP MP Carol Monaghan (right)
Nearly 100,000 travellers flew into during the outbreak’s peak in Britain
At the same committee meeting, the chief scientific adviser to the Home Office admitted nearly 100,000 people flew into Britain in April alone.
Professor John Aston said around 95,000 people arrived in the UK by plane between April 1 and 26, including 53,000 UK citizens.
Of those, fewer than 0.5 per cent (roughly 475 people) who arrived last month had Covid-19.
Professor Aston told the committee that SAGE used ‘complicated modelling’ to calculate the estimate.
‘It requires you to understand the prevalence (of Covid-19) within overseas countries as well as the prevalence within the UK,’ he said.
Boris Johnson’s lockdown ‘road map’ set out that children could return to nurseries, and for Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 pupils to be back in school, from June 1 at the earliest.
The PM said he wants all primary school pupils in England to go back to school for a month before the summer. However, both Scotland and Wales have dismissed the timetable.
Unions have already urged staff not to ‘engage’ with the government plans. And nine, representing school leaders, teachers and support staff, today accused the Government of showing a ‘lack of understanding’ about the dangers of the spread of coronavirus in schools.
The joint statement, from organisations including the NAHT school leaders’ union and the National Education Union (NEU), said: ‘We call on the Government to step back from June 1 and work with us to create the conditions for a safe return to schools based on the principles and tests we have set out.’
‘We all want schools to reopen, but that should only happen when it is safe to do so.
‘The Government is showing a lack of understanding about the dangers of the spread of coronavirus within schools, and outwards from schools to parents, sibling and relatives, and to the wider community.’
The Department for Education (DfE) issued guidelines on Monday which said primary school class sizes should be limited to 15 pupils and outdoor space should be utilised.
Professor John Aston – chief scientific adviser to the Home Office – said around 95,000 people arrived in the UK by plane between April 1 and 26, including 53,000 UK citizens
The advice, on how to safely reopen schools, calls for lunch and break times to be staggered, as well as drop-off and pick-up times, to reduce the number of pupils moving around.
On the guidance, the joint statement from the unions added: ‘Uniquely, it appears, school staff will not be protected by social distancing rules.
’15 children in a class, combined with their very young age, means that classrooms of four and five-year-olds could become sources of Covid-19 transmission and spread.’
‘We do not think that the Government should be posing this level of risk to our society,’ it said.
In the Commons this afternoon, Mr Williamson said all teachers and pupils will have access to Covid-19 tests if they develop symptoms when they return to schools.
Mr Williamson said he had set out ‘protective measures to minimise the risk of infection, including restricting class sizes and limiting mixing between groups’.
‘Crucially all children and staff will have access to testing if they develop symptoms of coronavirus,’ he said.
‘This will enable a track-and-trace approach to be taken to any confirmed cases.’
Mr Williamson acknowledged allowing pupils to return to school will be ‘challenging’.
He added: ‘We continue to follow the best medical and scientific advice and believe that this phased return is the most sensible course of action to take.
‘I know that this will be challenging but I know that nursery, school and college staff will do everything in their power to start welcoming our children back to continue their education.’
He went on: ‘When you have medical and scientific advice that is saying it’s the right time to start bringing schools back in a phased and controlled manner, it seems only the right thing to do and the only responsible thing to do.’
The Education Secretary said the Government has worked ‘very closely with all the teaching unions and headteachers’ unions’.
‘This is what’s informed and developed the guidance we have shared with schools,’ Mr Williamson said.
He added: ‘The reason we’re bringing schools back is we know that children benefit from being educated by their brilliant teachers in front of them.
‘We recognise children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are the ones who are going to suffer the most if we do not bring schools back when we’re able to do so. I’m more than happy to share all the advice we have received from Sage.’
Mr Williamson said he is looking ‘very closely’ at proposals for summer school catch-up tuition.
Up to 100 British children have had a mysterious inflammatory disease thought to be caused by COVID-19 as experts warn NHS hospitals may only be seeing tip of the iceberg
Sam Blanchard, Chief Health Reporter for the MailOnline
Up to 100 children have been hospitalised with a mysterious ‘inflammatory syndrome’ thought to be caused by the coronavirus.
Doctors today revealed that dozens of children, most aged between five and 15 years old, have become seriously ill with the condition that seems to appear up to a month after catching the coronavirus.
They say it is extremely rare and does not appear to have directly killed anyone in Britain but can lead to intensive care for a small proportion of those who get it.
The illness has been likened to Kawasaki disease, a rare disorder which causes rashes and a red mouth and eyes.
At least 18 children in London have been diagnosed with it since doctors first started noticing the syndrome last month.
Most troubling experts is that the illness is almost definitely caused by COVID-19 in some way but scientists can’t prove it.
The young patients’ lungs are not affected by it – in adults the coronavirus’s main target is the lungs – and many test negative when they are swabbed for the disease.
All of the patients studied so far, however, have tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies, meaning they have been exposed to the virus in the past. Scientists now believe it could be the consequence of the immune system going haywire after it has fought off the coronavirus infection, causing a second illness weeks later.
The same illness has been seen in Italy and China and around 100 children are known to have been diagnosed with it in New York.
Medics have likened the illness to toxic shock syndrome and Kawasaki disease, which can cause redness of the tongue (pictured left) and rashes (pictured right), but it is unclear whether this illness is having those effects
Speaking in a briefing this afternoon, Dr Liz Whittaker, a paediatrician in London who has treated children with the illness, said: ‘There is likely an iceberg effect and we’re only seeing only the very, very sick children.’
Dr Whittaker said the peak of admissions related to the illness appeared to have happened last week.
Explaining the disease, Dr Whittaker said: ‘These children are usually presenting when they’ve had a high fever for a few days.
‘A large proportion of them have had severe acute abdominal pain and diarrhoea and some have them have had the rash, red eyes and red lips.
‘A very small group of these children develop something we call shock, which is that small group of children for whom the heart is affected.
‘And those children become very unwell – they get cold hands and feet and they breathe very fast. Those are the group who absolutely need to be in an intensive care unit getting supportive care rapidly.
‘Most children seem to be very unwell for four or five days but then get better.’
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE SYNDROME?
WHAT SYMPTOMS DOES IT CAUSE?
The majority of the children being hospitalised with the condition have suffered from a high fever for a number of days, severe abdominal pain and diarrhoea.
Some develop a rash and red eyes or red lips, while a very small group go into shock, in which the heart is affected and they may get cold hands and feet and have rapid breathing.
The symptoms are similar to those caused by Kawasaki disease, a rare but treatable condition that affects around eight in every 100,000 children each year in the UK.
WHEN DID OFFICIALS FIRST START TO SEE CASES?
The NHS sent an alert to doctors on April 27, warning them to look out for signs of the syndrome.
At the time they said cases had been appearing in tiny numbers in London for about three weeks. Since then they have spread further across the country and between 75 and 100 children are known to have been infected.
IS IT CAUSED BY SARS-COV-2, THE CORONAVIRUS?
Doctors are almost certain the illness is being caused by the coronavirus but they haven’t yet been able to prove it.
Cases began appearing as the UK’s coronavirus outbreak hit its peak and similar conditions have been reported in China and Italy during the pandemic.
However, not all children with the Kawasaki-like syndrome test positive for the virus. Swab testing has suggested some of the children have not been infected with COVID-19 at the time they were ill.
But all patients have tested positive for antibodies, doctors said, meaning they have had the coronavirus in the past.
They said this suggests it is a ‘post-infectious phenomenon’ which is caused by a delayed overreaction of the immune system, which may happen weeks or even up to a month after the child was infected with COVID-19.
IS IT TREATABLE?
Yes. All but one of the children who have been diagnosed with the syndrome have survived. The only child known to have died with it, a 14-year-old boy, died of a stroke that was triggered by the life support machine he was on.
Doctors are currently treating the condition by using medications to calm down the immune system and dampen the overrection.
Dr Liz Whittaker, a paediatrician at Imperial College Healthcare in London, said the sickest children are usually very ill for four to five days and begin to recover a couple of days after starting treatment.
It is not clear exactly how many children have needed intensive care for the Kawasaki-like syndrome, but a surveillance study has now begun in Britain and early results may be available next week.
Professor Russell Viner, the president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said knowing about the syndrome had not changed the ‘basic arithmatic’ of COVID-19.
He said: ‘In general, children get no symptoms or very mild symptoms. They rarely present to hospital.
‘In fact across the whole of the UK there’s been under 500 admissions to hospital for COVID-19.’
The experts described the illness as a ‘post-infectious phenomenon’ because it seems to appear weeks or even up to a month after the child caught the coronavirus.
And, unusually, it seems not to affect their lungs. COVID-19 is considered a respiratory infection in adults, meaning it focuses almost entirely on the lungs.
The Kawasaki-like syndrome being seen in children, however, seems to affect the heart in serious cases. It still causes a high fever, as in adults, but apparently not coughing or shortness of breath.
Dr Whittaker explained: ‘These children don’t have really bad lung disease. The adults that we’re mostly seeing on the wards are presenting with really bad breathing problems.
‘These children; their lungs aren’t affected… We know that some of these children have had their heart tissue affected, maybe we would find the virus in other parts of the body which are harder to access.’
She said this could account for why children appeared to be testing negative for COVID-19, despite having the syndrome.
Swab tests currently rely on collecting cells from the nose and throat and testing those to look for signs of infection in the airways.
Dr Whittaker added: ‘There is the possibility that we’re taking samples from the wrong place.’
The illness also differs from COVID-19 in adults in that the children who have developed it have not had underlying health conditions.
The coronavirus seems to most badly affect adults who have other illnesses, such as high blood pressure, heart disease or diabetes. But the children developing this condition appear to have been otherwise healthy.
There are, however, ways of working out which children might get most seriously ill, scientists say.
Professor Michael Levin, an expert in international child health at Imperial College London, said: ‘In the very short period of time that we’ve been trying to study this problem we have learnt that there are some markers in the blood that, if we measure them, they seem to predict which patients are going to do badly and need more support and more treatment.
‘Just knowing that does help us quickly know if a child is likely to need more support and more treatment…. We need to study this at much bigger numbers.’
The illness first came to public attention when NHS England in April circulated a warning urging doctors to look out for the condition.
In an alert sent to GPs on April 27, health chiefs said: ‘There is growing concern that a [COVID-19] related inflammatory syndrome is emerging in children in the UK.
At least 552 people in Barrow-in-Furness (pictured), Cumbria, have been infected with the disease since the outbreak began in February
‘Over the last three weeks there has been an apparent rise in the number of children of all ages presenting with a multi-system inflammatory state requiring intensive care across London and also in other regions of the UK.’
Health Secretary Matt Hancock at the time said he was ‘very worried’ by the reports.
But experts say learning about the illness does not mean children are at any more risk from the coronavirus, and it does not mean they will be at risk when schools go back.
Schools will not continue to open if there is a risk of mass transmission of the virus, and cases are ‘exceptionally rare’, only beginning to appear after the darkest days of Britain’s outbreak when huge numbers of people were getting infected and dying of the virus.
Professor Viner added: ‘Fears about this syndrome shouldn’t stop parents letting their children exit the lockdown.
‘But parents do need to do is have some knowledge and have some understanding so they can recognise this and seek help very early.’
‘MY SON WAS HOSPITALISED WITH KAWASAKI DISEASE ON HIS SECOND BIRTHDAY’
Gemma Brown, 38, told MailOnline that her son, Bertie, was admitted to Worcestershire Royal hospital in March on his second birthday, when his temperature soared over 40C (104F) and his blotchy rash began to turn black.
Doctors were initially baffled but a senior consultant eventually diagnosed the boy with the rare Kawasaki disease, a form of toxic shock syndrome which causes the body’s immune system to attack its own organs.
But Bertie was not given a COVID-19 test, leaving both medics and his family in the dark about a possible link between Kawasaki disease and coronavirus.
‘I don’t know how the Government is going to prove there’s a link if they’re not testing patients,’ the mother-of-two from Droitwich Spa, Worcestershire, said.
‘I asked for him to be tested, as I had a gut feeling that there was a connection between covid and Kawasaki. Both attack your immune system and the whole family had been poorly with Covid symptoms before Bertie fell ill.
‘I was adamant that there was a link and was begging for a test, but they just told me that there was no need to test the under-fives.’
Bertie’s temperature soared over 40C (104F) and the blotchy rash spread across his body and began to turn black. Doctors were initially baffled but a senior consultant eventually diagnosed the boy with the rare Kawasaki disease
His mother Gemma (pictured with Bertie and is older brother George, 14) believes his symptoms were a complication of the coronavirus. But Bertie (right) was not given a COVID-19 test, leaving both medics and his family in the dark about a possible link
The boy was given an immunoglobin transfusion and was in hospital for five days. ‘It was horrific seeing him like that,’ Mrs Brown said.
‘He didn’t have any respiratory problems but he was put in a ward on his own and he was easily the most poorly child in the hospital.
‘His rash had started out being itchy, but it quickly put him in agony. His temperature was dangerously high and they were monitoring him round the clock.’
Bertie, who was born very prematurely weighing only 1.5lb, has always had a weak immune system, making him susceptible to viruses.
‘Thank God he is OK now and has come home, though he’s still on Aspirin to prevent his blood clotting,’ his mother said.
‘He’s much better in himself. But the fact is that we just don’t know what’s been going on as he wasn’t tested for coronavirus.’