England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said on Saturday night that children were considerably more likely to suffer long-term harm by not returning to school than by COVID-19 infection.
Professor Whitty was speaking on behalf of all chief and deputy chief medical officers across the UK, whose joint statement said: “Very few, if any, children or teenagers will come to long-term harm from Covid-19 due solely to attending school. This has to be set against a certainty of long-term harm to many children and young people from not attending school.”
The overwhelming majority of the childhood deaths where COVID-19 was present, he said, occurred among children who already had “very serious” pre-existing health problems.
The most recent data from the Office for National Statistics bears this out: between March and June this year, young people aged 19 and under whose deaths were registered as ‘due to’ the coronavirus numbered 10, compared to 46,725 deaths among people aged 20 and above.
Elaborating on the claim that interrupted education was damaging to children, Professor Whitty referred to “overwhelming” evidence demonstrating that by missing out on schooling, children were far more predisposed to developing “mental and physical ill health in the long run”.
Meanwhile, a new study from Public Health England published yesterday (23rd August) found that out of over a million children who had attended schools in England during the month of June, just 70 had been infected by the virus (as had 128 staff).
The study additionally found that infection among children was more likely to originate from home rather than at school.
However, the joint statement of medical chiefs was also careful to stress that there were no “risk-free options” ahead.
Professor Whitty explained that school reopenings may possibly exert some degree of upward pressure on the average infection rate in the community, or ‘R’ number, possibly sufficient to push it above 1 in some local areas where it had previously been below it.
The danger of exceeding 1 is that the virus may start spreading exponentially at that point.
Professor Whitty said: “This will require local action and could mean societal choices that weigh up the implications of imposing limitations on different parts of the community and the economy.”
When he was pressed on whether more lockdowns may be in the offing, Professor Whitty was candid, saying that such measures were “certainly possible”.
The danger of upward pressure on the R number, he added, was presented far more by adults mixing again in the workplace and other environments than by children passing it on.
However, he went on to say that evidence from other parts of the world where schools had been reopened shows no sudden spike in transmission rates.
Ominously, Professor Whitty said that COVID-19 presented a “really serious challenge” for the coming nine months at least, which remained “a very, very substantial challenge we are all collectively going to have to respond to”.