JOHN Swinney has insisted it is safe to reopen Scotland’s schools after a warning that reported low transmission rates of Covid among children was “misinformation”. 

However the Education Secretary also said it was "critical" that parents followed mask-wearing and physical distancing rules at the school gates.

Early learning and face-to-face classes for primaries 1-3 are due to restart tomorrow, as well as some specialised practical lessons for a small number of secondary pupils.

The move is part of the Scottish Government’s “children first” approach to easing lockdown, with a phased reopening of schools prioritised ahead of other parts of society.

All school years could return in England from March 8, although the next phase of Scotland's return is not likely before March 15.

On BBC Scotland's Sunday Show, epidemiologist Dr Deepti Gurdasani, of Queen Mary University in London, said the return of children without adequate safeguards was “really concerning”.

She also questioned advice to parents from Scotland’s national clinical director Jason Leitch last week saying children were less likely to catch and pass on the virus. 

She said that was wrong, and that much of the "misinformation" on children not transmitting the virus was based on “flawed studies” that only tested children already showing symptoms.

That missed out transmission by children without symptoms, and other surveys had picked up “significant transmission” among young people, she said.

She said Scottish schools should adopt face coverings for children age six and over, reduce class sizes, and focus more on better classroom ventilation and air purification.

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Asked about the comments, and whether school reopening was unsafe, Mr Swinney said: “I do believe it is safe to do what we’re doing tomorrow.

“I base that view on the very detailed clinical analysis that’s been prepared for us by our education clinical advisory group, that was published earlier in February.

“What that demonstrated was that younger children are much less susceptible to transmission of this virus. The rates of infection amongst the youngest children, who will be the ones predominantly going back tomorrow.. .are more than half of those of the general presence within the population.

“We have to look at all the evidence that supports those decisions, but we’ve also got to take measures to ensure absolute safety within the school and early learning and childcare environment, and that’s exactly what our guidance is designed to do.”

He said there would always be a debate among scientists, but said the Government had benefited from very detailed analysis from a respected expert group.

“I believe, combined with the guidance we’ve put in the place, the mitigations that are necessary to make sure that schools are opening in a safe environment, provides parents with the assurance that children are going into a safe environment.”

However he also said there was little "headroom" in the R number, or transmission rate, which was currently 0.7 to 0.9, and so close to 1 and accelerating viral spread. 

He said: "“I know this can be quite controversial at times, but adults making sure they follow all of the physical distancing requirements at the school gate, or the mask-wearing requirements, is critical to make sure that the return of young children – who are much less susceptible to transmitting the virus – is not in some way underminded by the fact that there is essentially parental transmission.”

He continued: “We’ve all got to play a part, not just the school environment but the whole surrounding environment of society, to make sure that we do all that we can to suppress the virus.

“Because we don’t actually have an awful lot of headroom between where the R level is just now – somewhere between 0.7 and 0.9 – and 1, where obviously the virus begins to spread exponentially.”

Like Nicola Sturgeon earlier this month, he refused to rule out closing the Scotland-England border to stop Covid being imported, but said that would not be desirable and a co-ordinated approach was better.

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Earlier, Dr Gurdasani told the programme: “I think the way that we are bringing students back to school - without any additional mitigations in place -  is really concerning.

“We’re seeing for example, in England, that even with one in five children in primaries, primary age group children have the highest prevalence across all age groups. 

“We’re still seeing a significant number of outbreaks in primary school settings and in pre-school settings. 

“So given all of that, it’s wrong to say that primary schools don’t really contribute significantly to transmission. 

“Our own data from the Office for National Statistics show that primary school children in England were two times more likely than adults to be the first case in the household, and once infected were two times more likely to infect their contacts.”

Asked whether Professor Leitch had been wrong to tell parents that younger children were less likely to get or pass on Covid, Dr Gurdasani replied: “Yes, there’s a lot of misinformation around. A lot of it is based on interpretation of flawed studies which have only included symptom-based testing for children.

“We know that children are more likely to be asymptomatic. So if you only test them when they’re symptomatic you’re going to miss a lot of transmission that’s happening.

“Studies that are less biased, like the Office for National Statistics survey, which is a random survey of the population, really captures this transmission and shows us there is significant transmission happening that we are not picking up with these studies.”

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Asked what mitigation measures she would recommend, she said: “Mask use, including in primary schools  in children six and above, like has been implemented in France and Spain.

“More attention to ventilation. This is predominantly an aerosol transmitted virus. 

“We give a lot of attention to hygiene, but very little to things like air filtration and purification devices in our school, as well as carbon dioxide monitors to look at whether we have sufficient ventilation.

“We need smaller class sizes, smaller bubble sizes. We need to ensure that teachers are not moving between bubbles.

“I understand the difficulty [in opening windows] given its winter. But using air purification, air filtration devices can have huge impacts on reducing aerosol transmission. We need to do that.  Others countries like Germany and parts of the US have put these in place. I don’t understand why we’re not paying attention to these really important interventions.”