Schools in England may reopen on a regional basis once lockdown restrictions are relaxed, the deputy chief medical officer has said.
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Dr Jenny Harries hinted that schools might be able to reopen in London first, because the capital was one of the first areas to see a spike in cases caused by the new variant but was now seeing a fall in transmission.
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Giving evidence to the House of Commons Education Select Committee, Dr Harries was asked whether there could be a regional or phased system for reopening schools after the latest lockdown.
She said: “I think on the broad epidemiology it is highly likely that when we come out of this national lockdown we will not have consistent patterns of infection in our communities across the country.
“And therefore, as we had prior to the national lockdown, it may well be possible that we need to have some differential application [of interventions].”
She went on: “I think it’s likely we will have some sort of regional separation of interventions.” She added that London was seeing “glimmers of hope” because it had been “affected earlier by the new variant”.
Osama Rahman, the Department for Education’s chief scientific adviser, also noted that the framework for managing schools in relation to the coronavirus was tied to the regional tier system introduced last year. “We currently have an approach which is aligned to the tier system, so it may be that that is the approach government will take,” he said.
School attendance up
Elsewhere, figures from the DfE showed that roughly five times as many pupils are going into state schools in England compared to the first lockdown
While schools have closed for most students, vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers may still attend.
On 13 January, 21 per cent of pupils were in attendance at state primary schools, compared to 4 per cent in May 2020. Five per cent of students were on-site at state secondary schools, compared to 1 per cent in May.
The figures are thought to reflect a number of factors, including a drive to get vulnerable pupils to attend and a greater willingness by key workers to send their children in, as well as some pupils attending because they do not have devices for remote learning.
Hospitals are seeing more children on their wards with mental health problems because of the pandemic, a top doctor has said.
Professor Russell Viner, the president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, delivered a stark warning to MPs on the negative impact of the lockdown.
“Children and young people, when we close schools, they reap harm from that,” he said.
An NHS study found that the rate of young people with a probable mental health disorder had increased from one in nine in 2017 to one in six last July.
“Social distancing has reduced viruses and the transmission of other infections that often bring children into hospital,” Professor Viner said. “We’ve seen across our children’s wards a bit of a shift towards more mental health problems being the reason that children come into children’s wards.”
He said there had also been anecdotal reporting of “pressure on eating disorder services”, which may have been caused by more young people “feeling out of control” because of the pandemic.