Ministers rejected school reopening plan recommended by Sage experts

A low-risk scenario where pupils in England would attend school on alternating weeks was presented to the government as the most likely way to gain popular support before ministers instead settled on their plan for a widespread reopening on 1 June, newly published papers have revealed.

The government’s plan for reopening schools to entire classes of reception, year 1 and year 6 pupils on 1 June was not among the nine scenarios modelled for Sage by the Department for Education. But one of the scientists’ preferred options of splitting classes and having pupils attend on alternate weeks, which they said had “particular potential merit”, was passed over.

The papers of scientific advice prepared for Sage and its subcommittees reveal high levels of uncertainty around different scenarios for school reopenings, and over the likelihood of transmission of the Covid-19 virus by children of different ages.

One of the most recent papers, discussing the effects of increasing school attendance on transmission, concludes: “There is substantial uncertainty, with the relative contribution of school openings being driven also by the relative susceptibility and infectivity of children of different ages compared to adults, as well as the extent to which social distancing is or is not sustained in the wider population.”

The stash of documents released by Sage and the government on Friday afternoon show the scientific advisers wrestling with questions of how easily children could transmit coronavirus, with the experts conceding that exposure outside the schoolyard was likely to be highly influential.

Collectively, the scientific advice appears to do little to assuage fears among parents and teachers over the potential risks in reopening schools to reception, year 1 and year 6 as soon as 1 June, as Boris Johnson pledged earlier this month. On Thursday the governments of both Scotland and Northern Ireland announced that schools in those countries would not return until after the summer holidays.

A modelling paper stated: “The modelling consistently suggests that resuming early-years provision has a smaller relative impact than primary school, which in turn has a smaller relative impact than resuming secondary schooling. However, this analysis does not incorporate potential for indirect impacts on contacts outside of school – which may differ by age of child.”

The modelling of infection spread – carried out by four institutions, including Public Health England – also did not account for the activities of children within schools: “It is important to understand what is going on inside of the school (eg physical distancing, hygiene measures, and more). The potential effect of such actions is not incorporated into the modelling.”

Sage looked at the modelling for nine different scenarios outlined by the Department for Education, from total closure to full reopening. But none of the published scenarios included the three year groups that the government eventually chose.

The committee that examined the modelling appeared to favour two scenarios that would have split both primary and secondary school classes and have different groups of children attend on alternate weeks, labelled scenario seven, which would have seen a low level of potential transmission according to the four results.

The recent paper on modelling continued: “Scenario 7 (alternating one/two weeks on, one/two weeks off) may be a good way to stop extensive transmission chains in schools. When this effect in schools is embedded into the wider community, the impact is less strong, but still has some value in reducing overall R.” But it added: “The modelling of Scenario 7 is the least robust of the scenarios, and further exploration is needed.”

Under “behavioural factors” the committee’s advice stated: “Scenario 7 is likely to be the most effective strategy to make school attendance normative. If steps are taken to synchronise attendance for families with multiple children, this may be the most effective at enabling parents to return to work.

“Scenario 7b, where children alternate in and out of school on a weekly basis, was perceived to be potentially preferable – both developmentally and practically – for young children and working parents.”

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The group looking at the role of children in transmission was most supportive of the reopening option involving split classes coming in on alternating weeks, across both primary and secondary schools.

“Although not initially one of the options proposed by DfE, options 7b (classes split in two, with children attending on alternate weeks) emerged from the joint discussions as having particular potential merit for further consideration,” according to one paper prepared for a meeting on 30 April, just days before Boris Johnson’s announcement on 10 May that primary schools would reopen.

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One paper prepared by Sage’s modelling and behavioural subgroups on 16 April warned that, as a result of school closures, some children would have “experienced a shock to their education which will persist and affect their educational and work outcomes for the rest of their lives”.

The experts conceded that “many children will adapt and be just fine”, with lockdown providing some families the chance to “bond more closely”, but they raised serious concerns about children who were already vulnerable, in particular those with special educational needs and disability.

A period of home learning, they added, would reinforce existing inequalities between children, while months off school would mean emerging learning difficulties were missed.

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Swiss say young children can hug grandparents

Swiss authorities say it is now safe for children under the age of 10 to hug their grandparents, in a revision to official advice on coronavirus.

The health ministry’s infectious diseases chief Daniel Koch said scientists had concluded that young children did not transmit the virus.

However, he said such meetings should be brief and not involve babysitting.

Switzerland is one of several European countries beginning to ease their lockdown measures.

This week, garden centres and hairdressers have been allowed to open their doors. Schools and shops selling items other than food will be allowed to reopen in two weeks’ time.

Dr Koch told a news conference this week that the original advice to keep distance between children and their grandparents was made when less was known about how the coronavirus was transmitted.

“Young children are not infected and do not transmit the virus,” he said. “They just don’t have the receptors to catch the disease.”

Dr Koch said that many grandparents “live to see their grandchildren” and that it was important for their mental health. He said it was not the children who posed a risk to elderly relatives but their parents.

The revised official guidelines came after consultation with experts at universities in Zurich, Bern and Geneva, Swiss broadcaster SRF reported.

The new advice applies to young children who show no signs of illness while older children must still avoid contact with grandparents.

Dr Koch advised only “brief contact with grandchildren”, not family get-togethers, babysitting, or spending time with children outside the home.

However, not all experts concur with the Swiss government’s findings.

Sounding a note of caution, Germany’s chief virologist Christian Drosten told Austrian broadcaster ORF that there was insufficient data to say conclusively that young children could not transmit the virus.

He said the question of whether children contracted the virus, and if so how they might pass it on, was answered differently in different studies.

Advice in the UK remains that children should not have contact with grandparents.

At a daily news briefing this week, Health Secretary Matt Hancock was asked by a member of the public when she would be allowed to hug her grandchildren again.

Mr Hancock said he “fully accepts” the importance of getting together with family but that it was important that “people who are vulnerable continue to be protected”.

The UK’s chief medical adviser, Chris Whitty, has warned that for some vulnerable groups close contact with family may continue to be a risk for some time.

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Assange ‘fathered two children’ in London embassy

Julian Assange secretly fathered two children while living inside the Ecuadorean embassy in London, his partner has revealed.

Stella Morris says she has been in a relationship with the Wikileaks founder since 2015 and has been raising their two young sons on her own.

She spoke out amid fears over the spread of Covid-19 in Belmarsh Prison.

He has been held there since being dragged from the Ecuadorean embassy a year ago.

The 48-year-old Australian is now seeking bail amid concerns over his health.

Ms Morris, a South African-born lawyer, told The Mail on Sunday she was revealing their union for he first time because his “life is on the brink” and she she does not believe he would “survive infection with coronavirus”.

In a video posted on Wikileaks’ YouTube account, she says she met Assange in 2011 when she joined his legal team.

He took refuge in the embassy in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden over a sexual assault case that has since been dropped.

He is also fighting extradition to the United States on espionage charges.

Ms Morris says she visited him in the embassy almost every day and “got to know Julian very well”. The couple fell in love in 2015 and got engaged two years later.

She told the Mail on Sunday that Assange had watched both boys being born via video link and they had visited their father at the embassy.

Three-year-old Gabriel and one-year-old Max speak to their father via video calls, she says.

“Forming a family was a deliberate decision to break down those walls around him and imagine a life beyond that prison,” she says in the Wikileaks YouTube video.

“While for many people it would seem insane to start a family in that context, for us it was the sane thing to do, to keep things real.

“It grounds me and when Julian sees the children it gives him a lot of peace and nurture and support. They are very happy children.”

Assange was arrested on 11 April 2019 at the Ecuadorean embassy and detained for “failing to surrender to the court”.

He was sentenced to 50 weeks in jail for breaching his bail conditions.

Assange was due to be released from HMP Belmarsh last September after serving the custody period of his jail term.

But a judge ruled that he should remain in jail until his extradition hearing because of his “history of absconding”.

Details about the children with Stella Morris were seen by the Mail in court documents as part of his US extradition case.

Assange is believed to have other children, although little is known about them. He has an adult son, Daniel Assange, who is reportedly a software designer in Australia.

More than a thousand UK prisoners have reported symptoms of coronavirus, official figures show.

One inmate at HMP Belmarsh is among several have died, according to internal data confirmed by the Ministry of Justice.

Up to 4,000 low-risk prisoners in England and Wales are to be released in an effort to control the spread of coronavirus, the government has said.

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