Educated guesswork

On Monday (1st June) many schools will return across Somerset. Somerset County Council has moved its position. From initially saying all schools would open. To a position of leaving the final decision to each head teacher.

It certainly puts head teachers in an unenviable position. Much of the assumption that it is safe to return, hinges on two things.

  • The rate of reinfection in the county (the so called “R number”)
  • Having an efficient contact tracing system in place

The R number

Yesterday (Friday 29 May) the County Gazette published a figure of 0.96 for the R number as at 26 May. However the story admits that government figures are not available by local authority area. It further doesn’t make clear the source of the research quoted.

Somerset County Council estimate the R number for the South West as a whole at 0.76. But that was at the 10th May so is hopelessly out of date. And every one, including SCC and the Gazette, has to admit these numbers are if not guesses, estimates…..

More importantly, the SAGE group advising the government has noted the likely impact of children returning to school on 1st June. In an official paper presented to government they note the result of modelling by Bristol, Imperial, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine [LSHTM]. This suggests an impact on the R number of between 25% and 50%.

Taking this data alone, it hardly matters if the R number for Somerset is 0.76, 0.96 or any number in between. Once R is higher than 1, infections will spread exponentially. And the impact of children returning to school on Monday 1st June. If the SAGE group is correct, it will take R in Somerset to more than 1 in all but the most conservative of outcomes.

If you’d like to read the SAGE group paper you can see it here:

Contact Tracing

We reported previously that only 50 recruiters had been recruited to provide contact tracing across the South West. We questioned whether the Director of Public Health in Somerset had been kept in the loop. Especially given the importance Matt Hancock Secretary of State for Health, places on local input to contact tracing.

Since then we have learnt three things:

  • Baroness Dido Harding, who heads up the contact tracing system, told Labour MP Ben Bradshaw that the scheme may not be ready on a local level, until the end of June. This ties in remarkably well with the facts we reported in our own story.
  • We also learnt that although 25,000 contact tracers have been recruited nationally, the app to go with the scheme has been delayed by several weeks. This is arguably a red herring as efficient contact tracing can be run without an app, as was proved by the work in Africa on Ebola. Nor is it that important that (surprise, surprise) when all 25,000 tried to log onto the system on day one, it crashed.
  • The lead role in contact tracing for the South West was given to Devon County Council and their Public Health Director, despite Somerset having put itself forward. This is interesting rather than important.

Where does this get us?

We cannot say with absolute clarity that there is hard evidence of very much when it comes to the COVID 19 outbreak. We certainly cannot claim, as other have, that we definitely know what the outcome of schools opening on Monday will be.

What we can say is that there is significant doubt that opening schools on Monday can be done safely. That it can be done without exposing ourselves to an exponential increase in infections.

Education is of course important. One of the most important things a government and local authority can provide.

That said, why for the sake of four weeks of education, would we put the whole of society in our county at risk? Including the risk of a return to lockdown?

Remember 1st June is an arbitrary date. If need be, we could extend education by four weeks into the summer holidays.


Shortly after publication we received this statement from the Robin Head, Joint Secretary of the National Education Union in Somerset “On the wider opening of schools from June 1st the National Education Union in Somerset has a position commensurate with the union nationally. In line with the BMA and independent SAGE group we feel that wider opening of schools on this date presents a risk to the public which need not be taken. It absolutely agrees with the consensus that children should be in school as much as soon as they can however the conditions need to be as safe as they can be. Just over the border in North Somerset the decision not to push for the 1st, after taking advice from Trade Unions, is very much welcomed.”

One comment

  • The R rate of infection in Denmark did rise by 0.3 when the schools reopened.

    The R started from a relatively low 0.6 with a declining infection rate, whereas in Somerset we are likely to be starting schools back on June 1st with a dangerously high R of 0.9.

    A similar rise in R of 0.3 would put Somerset over 1.0 and the infection rate could start climbing again.

    The UK has had a comparative death rate per 1 million of population 5x the rate in Denmark.

    Therefore, at this stage of the pandemic schools reopening is quite clearly a political decision rather than a precautionary scientific decision.

    Fingers crossed that the continuing decline in infections in Somerset is fast enough to offset the 0.3 gain in the R and we don’t end up closing schools again and delaying a further easing of restrictions.

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