The risks of catching flu or being involved in a road accident are “higher” than contracting coronavirus for schoolchildren, England’s deputy chief medical officer has said.
Dr Jenny Harries told Sky News she could understand why parents are wary but said a well-controlled school environment with the information and knowledge there now is about COVID-19 “should be a safe one”.
“The long term harms of children not attending school significantly, we think, outweigh those potential risks,” she said.
“No environment is completely risk-free.
“Every time a parent sends their child off to school pre-COVID they may have been involved in a road traffic accident, there are all sorts of things.
“In fact that risk, or the risk from seasonal flu, we think is probably higher than the current risk of COVID.”
She added: “Obviously, the parents’ worst nightmare would be the death of a child, and we know that is an exceptionally rare event.
“We also know that children very rarely get serious disease and get hospitalised, and when children do get infection it is usually very mild and sometimes asymptomatic.
“So overall, the risk to the child themselves is very, very small.”
She said Public Health England will continue to “actively monitor” children at school.
But she stressed all studies so far suggest that infection rates and transmission rates in primary schools are low.
Older children in secondary schools are likely to have higher transmission and infection rates, but these could still be lower than the adult population, Dr Harries said.
A recent PHE study of coronavirus outbreaks – defined as two or more linked cases – found that children are more likely to catch coronavirus at home, usually from a parent, than at school, and that transmission between students is very rare.
Dr Harries and Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, were joined by the chief medical officers and deputy chief medical officers for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales at the weekend in saying children should return to school during the pandemic.
Professor Whitty acknowledged that children will undoubtedly bring households together who wouldn’t come into contact if schools were closed – which will “put pressure” on the R number.
“If that happens we will have to respond,” he said, adding that this could lead to the closure of pubs and shops at a local level.
The R number is a measure of how many people on average each infected person transmits the virus on to.
Professor Whitty added: “But I do want to be really clear, even with all the information we have got now, even with all the tools we have at our disposal now, we have still got a really serious challenge of coronavirus for at least the next nine months.”