SAGE adviser: Opening windows 'more effective' than masks in schools

Opening windows would be ‘much more effective’ at cutting the spread of Covid than getting children to wear face masks in primary school, SAGE adviser says

  • Professor Calum Semple says he is ‘not a fan’ of asking children to wear masks 
  • Child health expert at the University of Liverpool says there are better strategies 
  • Ministers confirmed face coverings would not be made compulsory in schools 

Opening windows would be ‘much more effective’ at cutting the spread of Covid in schools than getting children to wear face masks, one of No10’s scientific advisers claimed today. 

SAGE member Professor Calum Semple said he is ‘not a fan’ of asking young children to wear masks and insisted there are better strategies for managing the virus.

Ministers yesterday confirmed that face coverings would not be made compulsory in primary schools. 

But some schools have already defied the official guidance and insisted youngsters as young as five must wear coverings when they return to the classroom on March 8, in the first step of Boris Johnson’s roadmap to freedom.

Professor Semple, an expert in child health at Liverpool University, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘Primary school children are the lowest risk both to themselves and to society.

‘There is really good data coming out… that shows that children are half as likely to acquire the virus to a third as likely to acquire the virus.

‘When it comes to transmitting, they are probably half as likely to transmit it as adults.

‘That risk actually gets smaller as you go into younger age groups. So I am not a great fan of young children wearing face masks.’

Sage advisor professor Calum Semple, a professor of child health at the University of Liverpool, said he is ‘not a fan’ of asking young children to wear masks and there are better strategies for managing the virus when school reopen on March 8

Pictured: A teacher holds a creative writing class at Roath Park Primary School on February 23 in Cardiff, Wales

Professor Semple said that he agreed that young children will find it difficult to wear the masks properly.

He added: ‘If I had to invest in a single activity to improve the environment both for the children and the adults, I’d be looking at improving the ventilation, unsealing windows that have been painted shut and kept shut for energy-saving reasons… improving air exchanges.

‘That would be a much more effective way to reduce transmission in schools.’

Asked about the risk to teachers, Professor Semple said the data shows that teachers going to school ‘as a workplace are no more at risk than people in general society going about their daily living and normal working environment’.

Education unions have joined forces to demand that the PM scrap his plan to reopen all schools in England on March 8 and have called for a phased return instead. 

It comes after Education minister Nick Gibb yesterday confirmed that it would not be a case of ‘no test, no school’ when children return to classes in less than a fortnight.

Twice-weekly testing will not be compulsory for pupils but remains ‘highly recommended’, he said. He also said students would not be forced to wear masks.

It came after some schools, including Selsdon Primary School in Croydon, south London, said pupils must wear face coverings at all times, except during sports lessons or when eating or drinking.

A statement from the school said: ‘This decision was solely based on keeping our staff, pupils and their families safe in the current situation.’


There is no evidence having schools open drives the spread of coronavirus in the wider community in the UK, SAGE advisers said last week.

In a study of pupil and teacher absences caused by positive Covid tests, researchers said confirmed infections in schools did not lead to bigger outbreaks.

Instead, they said there were small signs that the opposite was true, and that schools tended to get worse hit when the cases around them had rocketed.  

Many pupils have been home-schooling for almost all of the past year, except for a brief period between September and December before the second wave spiralled out of control.

But education bosses fear rushing back to normal classes could lead to an explosion in cases, leading to more closures and greater disruption. Neither pupils nor staff will have been routinely vaccinated against the virus. 

Dr Mike Tildesley and Dr Ed Hill, members of SAGE sub-group SPI-M and Warwick University experts who did the study published today, said the reopening should be cautious and that it was important to ‘mitigate’ the inevitable risks of doing it.

The team admitted their paper was ‘an absence of evidence rather than evidence of absence’ of risk. And they conceded it probably underestimated how many Covid cases there actually are in schools because many people don’t get tested.

The Warwick study found Covid cases among teachers fell during the November lockdown, even though schools remained open.

And in December, cases in schools appeared to rise in tandem with outbreaks in the community, with bigger outbreaks in London and the South East, where the new variant was surging, and fewer cases in more rural regions.

Evidence showed that the numbers of people taking time off appeared to track alongside general outbreaks in the area around the school.

But there was no sign cases in schools would predict an outbreak in the community. Instead, there was ‘weak’ evidence that the opposite was true, suggesting pupils and teachers were more likely to get infected elsewhere.

Secondary schools appeared to see more confirmed cases in pupils and teachers, the study found, compared to primaries.

Dr Tildesley said in a briefing: ‘We need to approach the data with an element of caution – this will be an underestimate of the true number of cases within schools.

‘There will be some children with very mild symptoms or no symptoms at all.’

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