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Fri 7 May 2021

Sian Norris reports on newly-released scientific warnings from last Summer about a second winter wave of Coronavirus infections which the Government appears to have ignored

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) warned that re-opening schools in September 2020 would “increase transmission because people (including children) will mix more outside of their homes, resulting in great contacts between households”. 

The warning was given in July 2020 in the SPI-M-O Expert Narratives For Potential Autumn And Winter Events. SPI-M-O is the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, a sub-group of SAGE.

Although the meeting took place in the Summer, the statement was published on the Government website 5 February. 

It warned of four potential scenarios. Scenario A was labelled “optimistic” with the overall incidence of the disease remaining fairly flat. Scenarios B and C saw the national reproduction number – commonly known as the ‘R’ rate – increasing past 1 with little or high regional variation. Scenario D would see the R rate rapidly increase past 1, with relatively little regional variation. 

69,000 people have died since the SAGE meeting described its reasonable worst case.

SPI-M-O wrote that scenario D would “be relatively easy to identify the increase in transmission and therefore allow appropriate action to be taken”. Scenarios B and C would cause concern, however, as “these would both result in situations where widespread sustained community transmission could occur without detection, or with delayed detection, at the national level.”

In their statement, SPI-M-O said re-opening schools in September 2020 “particularly worries” them as “outbreaks will spread back into the local community, particularly those in high schools and colleges.”

SPI-M-O also warned that Christmas “could result in explosive outbreaks across the country, as people of different ages come into close contact with one another, at a time when almost all social interactions take place indoors.” 


Schools and Transmission

Throughout the pandemic, the priority has been on keeping schools open in order to protect and promote children’s health, wellbeing and future opportunities. 

Re-opening schools has been justified by ministers who have repeatedly asserted that schools are safe. As recently as 3 January, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the BBC there was “no doubt in my mind that schools are safe” and the risk to children was “very, very low” and the benefit of education was “so huge”. The following evening, Johnson was forced to close schools due to rocketing rates of the virus and they expect to remain closed until 8 March. 

The statement from SPI-M-O suggests that, while ministers told the public that schools were safe, re-opening schools had long been identified as a risk factor in transmission of the virus across communities. 

The warning was borne out in data from the teaching union NEU, which found that between October 2020 and the end of the school term of 17 December, rates of COVID-19 were higher in teachers.

The rate of COVID-19 infection rates in teachers in primary and secondary schools was 1.9 times higher than in the general population. Teachers working in special educational settings had even more alarming rates of infection – twice as high as the general population. 

However, quoted in Schools Week, Luke Sibieta from the Institute of Fiscal Studies “urged caution” at the statistics as “they are comparing two different sources of data: a survey of schools and national testing data amongst the population. These aren’t fully comparable.”

The data also found that during the Autumn term between 0.5 and 1% of teachers and other staff were absent because of confirmed Coronavirus – the IFS confirmed this was “clearly on the high side.”

Byline Times’ own reporting has revealed families whose children have brought home deadly cases of COVID-19 when the “only immediate contact with the virus has been through the school”.


Worst Case Scenario

SPI-M-O warned in July that scenarios B and C are “not inevitable” and could be averted with a well-funded communication campaign to help people understand why behavioural change would continue to be needed and improved support packages for people needing to self-isolate. 

Scientists also recommended “co-production of interventions to make them understandable and acceptable to, and achievable by affected communities” and “effective monitoring of current levels of behaviour in the community and a transparent evaluation of core systems, such as NHS Test and Trace, to help them to find and resolve their problems.”

On the first recommendation, regarding continued behavioural change, in August the Government encouraged people to go to restaurants via the Eat Out To Help Out scheme which is accused of driving COVID-19 infection rates.

Workers were told by the Prime Minister that it was “quite right” they were going back to the office, and schools planning early closure to reduce infections were threatened with legal action. Headlines warned that workers who stayed home risked losing their jobs. This does not suggest a communication campaign encouraging long-term behavioural change from the public.


The Government is also still struggling to provide financial support for people needing to self-isolate, with up to 70% of people in England turned down after applying for help. Meanwhile, the Test and Trace system, which the public were repeatedly told was “world-beating,” has failed to hit its goals despite soaring costs. 

In its reasonable worst-case planning scenario from July 2020 and published on 5 February, SAGE warned of 85,000 deaths between 1 July and 31 March 2021. 

SAGE explained that the 85,000 figure “is the number of confirmed COVID-19 deaths for hospitals and the community, with a 25% uplift to reflect care home deaths. It does not include deaths which are not captured in headline data, additional COVID-19 deaths that could occur due to lack of NHS capacity, or other excess deaths.”

As of 11 February 2021, 115,000 people have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, with 46,000 dying before 31 July 2020. This means 69,000 people have died since the SAGE meeting described its reasonable worst case. 

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