If the government fails to meet its pledge to fully reopen schools in September, it won’t be because of the medical advice.
A joint statement signed by the chief medical officers from all corners of the UK concludes the risk of children getting seriously ill from COVID-19 is dwarfed by what they describe as the “certainty of long-term harm” for many children if they do not attend school.
In the sea of confusion that defines most aspects of this pandemic, the collective assessment of the UK’s leading medical officials is a rare example of clarity.
But the conclusion that reopening schools represents the right balance of risks should not be misinterpreted.
Balancing risks is not the same as eliminating them and, as the statement makes clear, “there are no risk-free options”.
They conclude teachers are not at any higher risk than other working age people in other work places – not that there is no risk.
They say any upward pressure on the rate of infection would more likely be the indirect result of more people returning to work and using public transport, but an uptick is expected nonetheless.
The point was further underlined by the chief medical officer for England, Chris Whitty, who said COVID-19 would present “serious challenges” and “real problems” in the UK for at least the next nine months.
There is a “reasonable chance” a vaccine will eventually be found, Professor Whitty said, but probably not before the winter of 2021.
Until then the government will hope it can maintain its current approach of taking action against outbreaks locally rather than nationally.
Another full national closure of schools may be as unlikely as another full national lockdown, but the localised closure of schools could be unavoidable.
So far the government has not made clear how it believes education should be provided in that scenario, but it is likely to become a question ministers find themselves being asked more and more in the coming months.
The prime minister may feel a boost from the fact his determination to reopen schools has received medical backing, but his hopes of a “significant return to normality” by Christmas look to be in tatters.