The Republic of Ireland announced today that it will close schools, colleges and other public facilities until March 29 to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Many other countries battling the Covid-19 virus also have shut schools, introduced travel restrictions and more.
The British government has so far decided not to follow suit, although it has warned that it might close schools later as the pandemic progresses.
At a press conference today, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that keeping children at home could do “more harm than good”.
What do the experts say?
The Department of Health looked at the benefits and risks of closing schools in detail in its 2011 flu pandemic preparedness strategy.
The strategy is largely based on evidence which is in the public domain.
This paper modelled the potential effects of school closures on the spread of flu.
The authors say that while historical data suggests closing schools nationwide can reduce the spread of flu “such closures have severe implications”.
More harm than good?
It’s important to understand that when public health experts talk about the economic costs of a measure like closing schools, they don’t just mean that it will cost the government or businesses money.
Keeping children off school across the country will mean that many adults will have to take time off work to look after them.
Mass absences among the workforce could have all kinds of unfortunate knock-on effects for the nation’s health.
Dr Thomas House, Reader in Mathematical Statistics at the University of Manchester used the example of factories that produce vital medicines like insulin having to shut down, with devastating consequences for patients.
Professor Jimmy Whitworth, Professor of International Public Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, talked about the possibility of food and fuel shortages.
These are the kind of impacts that the academics take into account when deciding on the overall effectiveness of public health measures.
Many experts agree that the most immediate and obvious consequence of adults taking time off for childcare would be a sharp reduction in the number of doctors and nurses available for work at a time when they are most needed.
This study on school closures published in the Lancet found that around 30 per cent of people who work in the “health and social work” sector are likely to have children to look after.
Another possible consequence of closing schools is that people might have to rely on grandparents to help with emergency childcare.
It’s well-known that Covid-19 appears to pose a greater risk of serious illness for older people, so this could lead to some of the most vulnerable people being exposed to infection.
Lack of evidence
Several experts make the point that, while there is good evidence for children helping to spread other illnesses like flu, we don’t yet know whether children mixing in schools is one of the drivers of the coronavirus pandemic.
Professor Whitworth said: “I don’t see any convincing evidence that children are driving transmission here.”
Prof Keith Neal, Emeritus Professor of the Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases, University of Nottingham, said: “Children do not seem to get serious illness with Covid-19 and we do not yet know what role they play in significantly spreading the virus.”
Will people follow official advice?
Government advisers are clearly mindful of the need to bring in measures that people will actually follow.
At today’s press conference, the chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said it was impractical to close schools for months to try to separate pupils because “the chances of keeping children not speaking to each other or playing with each other over 13 to 16 weeks is zero”.
The chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, talked about the danger of bringing in social distancing measures too early and people becoming “fatigued” by them at the peak of the epidemic.
The risk is that, despite best intentions at the beginning, people stop doing what they need to after a while. Those managing the response to the virus want to avoid a drop in recommended behaviour at the time we need it most.
Professor Jimmy Whitworth said: “The measures that are introduced are a social contract between the government and the people to control this. The government cannot do this alone.
“We have to be supportive and we have to agree to it. If the government introduced really draconian things, people would not comply.”
Do experts back the government?
There is a spectrum of opinion about the government’s approach to the epidemic.
Some epidemiologists have called for bans on large gatherings, more home working and the testing of every possible Covid-19 test – measures the UK government has decided not to take.
Almost every expert agrees that the decision on whether to close schools is a difficult one.
Dr Mike Turner, Director of Science at the Wellcome Trust, said: “There is an incredibly difficult balancing act going on. Being too slow to react has potentially dangerous consequences. Over-reacting is also potentially dangerous, though for different reasons.
“And the core difficulty is that we are still learning about this virus and what is similar to things we know about other coronaviruses and things that are different. There is limited evidence that closing schools and postponing sporting fixtures makes much material difference. Each country is making the best call they can on such issues with limited information and there is no ‘correct’ answer here.”