GETTING pupils back to school and keeping them open must be a public health priority, leading scientists warn today.

The Royal Society, the world's oldest independent scientific academy, said evidence from other countries indicates that the "opening up of schools has not resulted in notable rises in infection at a national level."

A paper published today by the Royal Society's Data Evaluation and Learning for Viral Epidemics (DELVE) group says that keeping schools open UK-wide "should be the default position given the substantial risks from closures".

Suppressing the virus in the wider community must be prioritised, they say, in order to "reduce the risk of transmission in schools once at full capacity, and to minimise future disruptions to learning."

READ MORE: Why an apparent rise in Covid cases might not be what it seems 

"The gap of lost learning grows at an increasing rate as more and more time is missed from shut schools," they add.

The group predicts that, without action, future skills and earning power for the current generation of five to 18-year-olds will be harmed.

They estimate that from the mid-2030s - and for the 50 years following that - around a quarter of the entire workforce will have lower skills. This could reduce their earning potential by 3 per cent a year and consequently lower the overall economic growth rate, say DELVE.

In addition they warn prolonging school closures exacerbates inequality, puts children at risk, and damages their physical and mental wellbeing.

Dr Ines Hassan, a member of Edinburgh University's Global Health Governance Programme who contributed to the paper, said: “Through our analysis we believe this risk from re-opening schools is far less that of the long-term damage from them remaining shut.

"Closing schools causes loss of learning and deterioration in children’s mental and physical health.

"Keeping schools shut increases inequalities, in both children’s education achievement and their long-term prospects.

"Keeping schools open is also the key to unlocking the rest of the economy, allowing parents return to their own jobs."

In countries including New Zealand, Australia and France physical distancing was the rule "until cases in the community had been suppressed to manageable numbers".

They are now back at close to normal capacity - though the impact of this is still to be scrutinised. 

DELVE recommends that face coverings "should also be worn on public transport on the way to school" and in schools by older pupils, teachers and parents dropping their children off.

It calls for regular testing, prioritisation for vaccines for teachers, and stresses the need for "effective surveillance" and a rapid test-trace-isolate system.

"If local outbreaks occur, other facilities where the risk of transmission is high (such as pubs or gyms) and non-essential shops should be closed, before considering school closures."

The Scottish Government wants to fully re-open schools from August 11, if virus levels are low enough.

The DELVE paper states: "The balance of evidence so far suggests that schools play only a limited role in overall transmission.

"This is in marked contrast with influenza, where there is strong evidence that schools are an important driver of overall nationwide transmission.

"The international data that are available shows at most very limited transmission in schools where a child was the index case."

It notes that school closures "may reduce the effective reproduction number", but adds: "When the infection rate is high, this might potentially result in a large reduction in the number of cases, but when infection rates are low, the reduction in the number of cases may not justify the costs of school closure"

Professor Simon Burgess, professor of economics at Bristol University and a lead author on the report, said: “While it is still early days, there has been little evidence of surges in infection rates in countries that have opened up their schools, including countries that have fully reopened.

"While we have to do all we can to reduce the risk of transmission, we do need to get our children back to school.”