R rate 'can't be reduced below 1 without schools closing'

A government expert has warned that the coronavirus R rate cannot be brought below 1 without the closure of schools.

Dr Michael Tildesley gave a stark response when asked if it could be, saying simply: ‘Probably in the short term, it may well be a no’.

He spoke on Radio 4 Today about the decisions now facing the government.

But he reiterated previous advice given to ministers when he said that even closing schools may not now be enough to deal with the new variant of coronavirus which is more transmissible.

‘It’s also not clear that even with closing schools, we can get the R below 1. And I think that’s the big problem,’ he said.

Dr Tildesley is a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling group (SPI-M), the modelling subgroup of SAGE, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.

After a meeting on December 22, experts from SAGE warned: ‘It is highly unlikely that measures with stringency and adherence in line with the measures in England in November (i.e. with schools open) would be sufficient to maintain R below 1 in the presence of the new variant.

‘R would be lower with schools closed, with closure of secondary schools likely to have a greater effect than closure of primary schools.

‘It remains difficult to distinguish where transmission between children takes place, and it is important to consider contacts made outside of schools.

‘It is not known whether measures with similar stringency and adherence as Spring, with both primary and secondary schools closed, would be sufficient to bring R below 1 in the presence of the new variant.’

Some primary schools opened for a new term today, although others including those in London will remain closed until at least January 18.

Secondary school pupils will have a staggered start, but a week later than planned. Exam year pupils will return on January 11 while others will return on January 18.

Yesterday, Boris Johnson urged parents to send their children back to school if they were open.

He said the risk to young people of the new variant is ‘very, very small’, as pressure mounts on the Government to keep all children learning from home.

When asked if the parents of young pupils should send their children back on Monday, he told the BBC Andrew Marr Show: ‘Absolutely they should – in the areas where schools are open.

But teaching unions say staff across the country do not feel safe and insisted all schools in England should close for the next two weeks. The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) said it had ‘commenced preliminary steps in legal proceedings against the Department for Education’.

A number of headteachers and councils have told parents they can keep their children at home as schools have started to rebel against Government orders to reopen.

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