Closing schools and colleges at this stage in the spread of the coronavirus epidemic could do “more harm than good”, Boris Johnson has warned.
On Thursday the prime minister reiterated advice that education settings “should only close if they are specifically advised to do so”.
It comes after the government’s emergency COBRA committee agreed to move from the “contain” to the “delay” phase of its response to the pandemic.
However, the government is advising colleges to call off any international trips with students under the age of 18 they have planned.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, said that while it’s “true that there’s some effect in closing schools” the effect is “minimal”.
“Actually, you’d have to do it for 13 to 16 weeks or longer, and you don’t have to be a very advanced mathematician to work out that the chances of keeping children not speaking to each other or playing with each other over 13 to 16 weeks is zero,” he said.
“Therefore, you have to be very careful to make sure you take the right measures that will stop this, rather than things that might end up with children, for example, going to stay with grandparents at a time when they might be most vulnerable.”
Dr Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, also said it was important to “do the right things at the right time. This is going to be a long haul. It’s critical we do not start things in advance of need.”
The move to the “delay” phase of the government’s response comes after the number of cases in the UK rose to over 450.
It was warned earlier this month that this phase of the government’s plans could include school and college closures. France and the Republic of Ireland announced earlier this week that all of its schools and colleges would close. Italy, Japan and parts of China made similar decisions earlier this month.
The Association of Colleges has issued guidance for its members.
“The Department for Education have confirmed that we have now moved into the delay phase in an attempt to manage the Coronavirus outbreak. As it stands, colleges will stay open,” it says.
“For AoC that means, until further notice, all our events, sports’ fixtures, network meetings, Policy Group meetings, and any other meetings required in the normal provision of our services, will proceed as planned.
“If staff have self-isolated, or tested positive, then of course they will not participate in any of these activities.
“If you have a confirmed case within your college visit https://www.gov.uk/health-protection-team. They will assist in next steps, including helping to organise a deep clean of the college. This is not for suspected cases, for confirmed cases only.
“Keep checking official Public Health England guidance for up-to-date info, advice and guidance.
“We will of course inform staff, colleges and partners immediately if this position changes. Until then, it’s business as usual.”
On Monday, the government announced it will allow apprentices to have a “break in learning” if they cannot be assessed due to the coronavirus.
You can read the government’s guidance for education settings here.