The findings raise hope that Boris Johnson will be able to proceed with an easing of the lockdown from next month. The Prime Minister is due to set out his roadmap on February 22, with the reopening of schools said to be a priority.
But they advise that the national lockdown be otherwise kept in place until April 19 to ensure the R rate is kept below one. The authors, whose research is published as a “pre-print” that has yet to be peer reviewed, include Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.
Professor Viner, of UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, told the Standard today: “We predict that it will be feasible to reopen schools from March 8 and still keep the R-number under one, meaning we could open schools and keep the pandemic under control if — and this is an important if — we don’t reopen society at the same time.
“Reopening schools will increase infections – of course –but we predict this will be to a level that keeps the pandemic under control.
“Of the different scenarios, opening primaries and exam-critical secondary years or primaries with all secondary years on rota, would give us the lowest increase in infections.”
The paper predicts that the lockdown is “likely to successfully control this pandemic wave”, aided by the vaccine roll-out. It is one of the first papers to include the impact of the vaccine.
Strategies to safely reopen secondaries could include rota systems, where pupils have two weeks at school followed by two weeks at home, and expanding rapid testing of pupils and staff. They could also feature the wider use of face masks in schools, vaccinating teachers as a priority and maintaining social distancing in other areas.
About one in five primary pupils are estimated to be attending schools, which are open to vulnerable children and those of key workers, with the rest offered online learning. But only five per cent of secondary pupils are in school.
The analysis assumes that primary children are only half as susceptible as secondary pupils to contracting the virus, and that 200,000 people a day are being vaccinated. Currently, the daily total is closer to 400,000, with more than 12 million having received a first dose.
The report said: “The opening of secondary schools would result in a larger rise in the number of infections and the R value rising to close to 1 in early March.
“Reopening primary schools and exam critical years only, or having primary schools open continuously with secondary schools on rotas, will lead to lower increases in cases and R than if all schools open.
“Under the current vaccination assumptions and across the set of scenarios considered, R would increase above 1 if society reopens simultaneously.”
Lead author DrJasmina Panovska-Griffiths, of UCL and Oxford University, said: “Our findings suggest that reopening schools on March 8, while keeping the rest of society locked down, is a plausible alternative to continued full national lockdown and is likely to prevent the epidemic from growing again.
“Opening secondary schools appears to result in higher infection levels than opening primaries so additional strategies may be needed to mitigate this. These could include staggered re-openings as well as expansion of mass-testing at schools, and vaccination of teachers.”