Lancashire's schools officially advised not to reopen to more pupils next week

It would not be safe to reopen Lancashire’s schools to more pupils from next week, because there is a “significant risk” that it would not currently be possible to contain any outbreaks of coronavirus which might occur as a result.

Thursday, 28th May 2020, 11:18 am

It would not be safe to reopen Lancashire’s schools to more pupils from next week, because there is a “significant risk” that it would not currently be possible to contain any outbreaks of coronavirus which might occur as a result.

That is the message from Lancashire County Council’s director of public health, Dr. Sakthi Karunanithi – who also warns that an easing of attendance restrictions at this stage could result in a second spike in Covid-19 infections.

The guidance has been issued to schools just days before some primary-aged children were expected to be coaxed back to class by the government.

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Dr. Sakthi Karunanithi

Ministers have encouraged schools across England to readmit pupils in reception and years one and six as of next Monday (1st June).

But in advice published late on Wednesday afternoon – and seen by the Local Democracy Reporting Service – Dr. Karunanithi says that Lancashire cannot yet meet two of the government’s own five tests which dictate when it is safe to ease lockdown restrictions further.

“The test and trace programme is not at a state of readiness to respond to Covid-19 community setting outbreaks in a timely manner, which poses a risk to school environments,” the guidance reads.

“Furthermore, we are not confident that adjustments to the current measures of the lockdown policy will not risk a second peak of infections locally.”

Dr. Karunanithi advises schools to continue with the current arrangements, whereby many of them are open for the children of key workers and vulnerable families. His letter to school leaders adds that:

***It is not going to be possible to implement social distancing in early years school settings.

***There is currently no evidence of widespread immunity in community settings.

*** There is a significant risk that should outbreaks occur in school settings, the current system will not allow for tests to be conducted in a timely manner and therefore, the virus will continue to spread.

The situation will be reviewed on a regular basis and further advice issued accordingly, so that “schools can re-open as soon as it is safe to do so”, Dr. Karunanithi explains.

He also states that there is no evidence that the lockdown has harmed education outcomes.

Amid a growing political row over the issue, County Hall has previously said that it would be up to individual headteachers to decide when it was safe to reopen – something which several of them told the Local Democracy Reporting Service last week that they welcomed.

It is understood that the final decision will still rest with school leaders – but the county council’s position is now unequivocal.

Dr. Karunanithi said in a statement: “The safety and wellbeing of Lancashire’s children, families and school staff are of paramount importance to us. We have carefully assessed the five tests the government has set for the easing of the lockdown measures and, at this stage, we cannot say with confidence that all of them are being met in Lancashire.

“Therefore we are advising schools that they should not reopen to more pupils from 1st June. We will keep this advice under constant review and, as soon as we believe it is safe for schools to open, we will inform schools and the public.”

County council leader Geoff Driver said: “At the end of the day, the decision rests with schools, but we always said we would be there to support them in their decision and give them advice.

“I resisted the pressure to [make a blanket ruling], because we would always go with professional and medical advice – and now that medical advice is so clear, it will be sent to schools.

"It was most unfortunate that Labour district leaders and the Labour leader of the opposition on the county council pushed for a decision for party political reasons, rather than in the interests of children, staff and parents – which has always been our highest priority."

But Labour opposition group leader Azhar Ali said that the new advice vindicated his call for a delay to reopening schools, after he, more than half of Lancashire's district council leaders and several unions wrote to County Cllr Driver last week raising concerns over testing capacity.

"The letter which the Labour group sent made exactly the point that we didn't have enough testing and risked a second wave of infections if we reopened schools at this stage," said County Cllr Ali.

"I'm delighted that the director of public health has backed our call to wait longer before reopening schools.

"Common sense and parent power have prevailed. But this u-turn by County Cllr Driver's administration shows the need for cross-party working during this crisis - he needs to get out of his bunker and work with others."

Last week the Labour group on the county council released figures which they said showed insufficient testing capacity across the county.

The party claimed that Lancashire County Council had confirmed that there was capacity for only 3,500 tests to be carried out each day across Lancashire – and that in order to have a successful 14-day rolling programme of testing, there would need to be 5,600 daily tests carried out. The group also claimed that the government’s recent pledge to provide testing for anyone over the age of five who is experiencing Covid symptoms would have required capacity for 10,000 tests in Lancashire each day.