The Daily Telegraph

Lightning a bigger risk to pupils than Covid

Threat so tiny that switch to Swedish model should be option, say Oxbridge scientists

- By Sarah Knapton science editor and Christophe­r Hope Chief political Correspond­ent Robert Halfon:

SCHOOLCHIL­DREN under the age of 15 are more likely to be hit by lightning than die from coronaviru­s, new figures suggest, amid pressure on the Government to get pupils back into classrooms as quickly as possible.

Scientists from the universiti­es of Cambridge and Oxford have called for “rational debate” based on the “tiny” risk to children and suggested that if no vaccine is found it may be better to follow the Swedish model, allowing younger people to continue with their lives while shielding the more vulnerable.

It comes as the Government was accused of “losing the plot” after Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, scrapped the target of getting all primary pupils back to schools before the summer holidays.

He told the Commons that instead, the Government would like to see schools that “have the capacity” bring back more pupils before the summer break.

Plans to get students back in September were thrown into further doubt after Downing Street said secondarie­s were expected to open to “more pupils”, rather than all pupils, in the autumn.

MPS and peers demanded to know why the Government appeared to be focused on getting non-essential shops open rather than prioritisi­ng schools.

The Government’s nervousnes­s about reopening schools was highlighte­d in analysis by the University of Cambridge of Office for National Statistics data that show the risk to children from coronaviru­s is staggering­ly small.

Currently, the death rate for five to 14-year-olds in England and Wales is one in 3.5 million. For under-fives, it is one in 1.17million. Analysis by The Daily Telegraph suggests children are far more likely to be hit by lightning. According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, between 30 and 60 people are struck by lightning each year in Britain, a risk of between one in 2.21 million and one in 1.1 million annually.

Prof Sir David Spiegelhal­ter chairman of the Winton Centre for Risk at Cambridge University argued the risk to children was “tiny” and said that previous generation­s had dealt with the issue by allowing youngsters to pick up infections when they were less dangerous.

He said: “If, years in the future, we don’t have a vaccine then we might have to think about how to protect those age groups most at risk while younger people can continue with their lives,” but added: “I don’t think that will ever involve encouragin­g people to get infected.”

Lord Blunkett, the former Labour education secretary, accused the Government of a “triumph of fear over ambition” as he called for a “national effort to give all children a face to face experience before the end of July”.

He told World At One on BBC Radio 4: “Why is it that other countries, not just in Europe but across the world, can have the ambition to get their children, in all kinds of creative ways, back into school and we can’t? I can only conclude that the Government is losing the plot.”

Justine Greening, the former Tory education secretary, added that it was “untenable to still have no government plan to get schools reopened”.

Writing for Telegraph online, Robert Halfon, the Tory chairman of the

education select committee, warned of the economic cost of losing nearly half of the school year to the pandemic, saying: “School closures could have a significan­t impact on the economy. We must get our children and teenagers learning again, and that means reopening schools sooner rather than later.”

Anne Longfield, the children’s commission­er for England, said it was “ridiculous” that schools were opening after other parts of the economy, adding: “Children are in danger of being forgotten in the lifting of lockdown.”

Prof Carl Heneghan, the director of the Centre for Evidence-based Medicine at the University of Oxford, said it might be worth considerin­g a Swedish model where those at risk are sheltered and younger people allowed to contract the virus to build herd immunity.

“We will start to have some rational debates because with many infections we know if you get them when you’re very young you actually do very well, for instance, chickenpox,” he said. “If there was no vaccinatio­n, and this becomes a circulatin­g epidemic infection, we’ll have to have a debate about when it is better to get this infection and if you look at the data, it is under 45.”

Data from England and Wales from

Mar 28-29 shows the virus added just one day of extra annual risk for five to 14-year-olds and less than a day for under-fives.

Sir David said he did not expect the rate to change as Britain came out of lockdown,

Earlier, Mr Halfon called for a “national education army” of retired teachers, students and Ofsted inspectors to save the school year for hundreds of thousands of pupils. He said: “We want Primark to open, we want pubs to open, people to go to Southend beach. We don’t mind delivery workers delivering our supermarke­t goods ... and yet we say it is not safe for the schools to go back – it is insane.”

Oasis, a charity that runs 32 academies, told The Telegraph a hotel chain had offered to let it teach in its rooms. Steve Chalke, its founder, said: “It is not just hotels – it is churches, mosques, village halls, town halls, museums as well. There is a creative way of creating a bit more curriculum for every child and creating inclusion for them.”

Seventy leading companies, charities and universiti­es – including KPMG and Northern Powerhouse Partnershi­p – have written to Mr Williamson calling for a national tutoring service for those pupils at risk of falling behind.

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