LONDON — Britain, having moved aggressively to reopen its economy after three months of coronavirus lockdown, now faces what some experts cast as a binary trade-off for a land that loves a good book as much as a cold pint: schools or pubs?
On Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson came down on the side of schools. Visiting an empty classroom in East London, Mr. Johnson declared that fully opening Britain’s schools next month was a “moral duty,” and that in event of a resurgence of the virus, “the last thing we want to do is to close schools.”
To avoid that scenario, medical experts said, the government will have to be ready to sacrifice another hallowed British institution — pubs, as well as restaurants, which reopened a few weeks ago under social distancing guidelines but are increasingly viewed as among the greatest risks for spreading the virus.
Mr. Johnson’s drive to reopen schools has put him at odds with teachers’ unions and local governments, which generally accept that schools should reopen but argue that Britain’s system for testing and contact tracing is not robust enough to cope with the outbreaks that are almost certain to follow.
The government, they said, had not developed plans for how teachers should handle sick students or communicate with parents if there is an outbreak. Mr. Johnson’s back-to-school campaign, some said, smacked of a government that had emphasized other priorities, like eating out in restaurants, and was playing catch-up.
“That doesn’t play particularly well with school leaders, who don’t need a lecture about moral duty,” said Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, which represents school administrators.
Britain’s schools debate echoes that in the United States and has swept in the same welter of thorny issues: economics, social justice, race and the role of government. And as in other countries, it has ignited often heated disputes over the science, with claims and counterclaims.
The education minister, Gavin Williamson, said on Monday that there was little evidence that the virus could be spread widely in classrooms. In making this assertion he was apparently referring to the findings of a yet-to-be released government study that looked at 20,000 students and teachers in 100 schools during the summer term. British schools closed on March 20 but reopened on a limited basis on June 1 for first and sixth-year pupils.
“We have always been and will continue to be guided by the best scientific and medical advice,” Mr. Williamson said. The findings, he said, should contribute to “growing confidence among parents about their children returning.”
But it is often difficult to pin down “the science,” and Mr. Williamson’s claims were challenged by several experts.
The Coronavirus Outbreak
Back to School
Updated Aug. 10, 2020
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Primary schools have not been incubators for the virus in countries that enforced social distancing and mask-wearing, but there have been outbreaks at secondary schools in Australia and Israel.
Younger children are less likely to spread the virus, but the risk is far from zero, and those ages 10 and older are just as likely as adults to pass it on, according to a major, recent study from South Korea. And it is not clear, experts say, whether younger children are any less infectious or simply have fewer opportunities to transmit the virus.
“Although children have very light symptoms and certainly don’t suffer as much as adults, they are spreaders, and children aged over 10 are significant spreaders,” said David King, a former chief scientific adviser to the government who has emerged as an outspoken critic of Britain’s pandemic response.
Professor King pointed to a new study by Neil Ferguson, a prominent epidemiologist at Imperial College London, predicting that a full reopening of schools would drive up the reproduction, or R, number of the virus by as much as 0.5. The reproduction number is currently hovering close to 1 in much of the country, and may be slightly above that in London, according to Professor King.
Reproduction numbers above 1 mean an outbreak is growing, and the daily number of new cases in Britain has been rising since falling below 600 in early July. On Sunday, it topped 1,000.
Given the limitations in the country’s testing, tracing and isolation system, some question how it will cope with outbreaks in schools when they inevitably happen. The government has already had to reimpose restrictions in Leicester and Greater Manchester, after they reported spikes in the number of infections.
“The big question is, if you open schools, how long can you keep them open?” said Devi Sridhar, director of the global health governance program at Edinburgh University. “If there’s spreading, do you shut down the whole school? Do you shut down a single class? How do you define a bubble?”
Professor Sridhar said the safest way to open schools was to drive down the transmission rate — and the way to do that, she said, was to close “the nighttime economy.” In the Scottish city of Aberdeen, she noted, nearly 800 people were forced into isolation because of an outbreak that authorities traced to a handful of pubs.
“My message is, you have to choose,” she said. “Which part of the economy do you have to sacrifice? Something’s got to give.”
Mr. Johnson cannot order schools to open or close; those decisions are made by the local health authorities. But some teachers say they are eager to return to the classroom, viewing the health risks as manageable. Schools in Scotland plan to reopen this week, with England’s opening on Sept. 1.
The prime minister struck a conciliatory tone on Monday, even if his choice of the empty St. Joseph’s Catholic Primary School for his message seemed curious. The trouble is, he has shown more enthusiasm in championing other parts of the economy.
All this month, for example, the government is giving diners a 50 percent discount on their restaurant bills to encourage them to eat out. Early in the pandemic, Mr. Johnson was loath to shut down the pubs, leaving it up to the owners to decide before he finally imposed a lockdown on March 23.
Even now, Dr. King noted, Mr. Johnson has not actually committed to shutting them down if that proves necessary. “He’s going to wait to see what we do after we open the schools,” he said. “That’s just a lack of strategy.”