Parents have been warned to “control their teenagers” as schools prepare to reopen across England from September.
Millions of secondary school pupils will be reunited with their friends for the first time in six months when they finally return to the classroom.
Yet despite many of the government easing many of its own distancing rules in schools, teenagers still aren’t supposed to touch when they meet.
And Dr Jenny Harries said the real danger could be what happens before and after school – when people from different households are still supposed to stay apart.
England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer told a Downing Street press conference: “The transmission risks were potentially more in the social behaviours of the teenagers – the older children out of school – than they potentially were in school.
“School is quite a controlled environment.
“And perhaps [we are] trying to encourage families [to] control their teenagers in their social interactions outside of school as well.”
She added: “In many ways we should be more concerned with what the teenagers are doing outside school.
“So if they’re in school in a controlled environment, with hierarchies of control and people keeping an eye on them, that’s probably a much lower risk than if they were out of school doing their own thing.”
More than 100 suspected or confirmed outbreaks were reported in England’s schools in June.
Forty “acute respiratory infection incidents” in schools or nurseries were reported to Public Health England in the week to June 30.
The figure refers to confirmed or suspected outbreaks, not all of which turn out to be Covid-19
That compared to 44 confirmed or suspected outbreaks the previous week; 24 the week before and 15 the week before. An outbreak is defined as two or more linked cases.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson suggested local school shutdown, like in Leicester, would “avoid the situation where we will ever have to see a national shutdown again”.
But Dr Harries warned Britain could yet face “waves and waves” of coronavirus breaking out nationally.
She said : “A second wave is quite a possibility – that is not ruled out at all. A second peak, as in an epidemic peak, is also not ruled out.
“In fact, in pandemics you can sometimes see successive ones – so we’re talking about a second, but you can get waves and waves.”
It comes after the government unveiled hardline guidance for the reopening of England’s schools to all children, full-time from September.
Unions had pleaded for extra money to open up classrooms in public buildings and have “blended” learning from home.
But instead the government is telling schools to use exactly the same space they had before the pandemic.
No money will be given for extra classrooms and schools are banned from running “rotas”. Pupils are expected in five days a week and there will be fines for absence.
To squeeze everyone in, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson will scrap the 15-pupil size limit on class “bubbles” – who stay together to stop the virus spreading further.
Bubbles will now be an entire 30-pupil class or even an entire year group.
Despite the massive increase, the rule that children must automatically isolate if one member of their bubble tests positive has been scrapped.
Instead, a whole class or year group may have to stay home if an ‘outbreak’ is detected in a school – but this will be decided on a case-by-case basis.
While staff are told to keep two metres apart from pupils where possible, the guidance accepts that in many cases that won’t be possible between the pupils themselves.
Asked if the new rules were safe, Mr Williamson claimed: “We’ve seen the creation of safe environments and thats the type of environment we’re going to be creating.”
But Dr Harries warned: “We can’t guarantee absolute safety for anybody anywhere in the UK. We have to be realistic.”
She added she would have been “concerned” if the plan was put forward earlier in the pandemic, but infection rates have now decreased.
Both Dr Harries and Education Secretary Gavin Williamson denied the outbreak in Leicester – which has forced schools to close in a local lockdown – was due to schools.
Dr Harries said: “This is not a picture of a particular focal point, and certainly not on schools.”
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said the outbreak in Leicester was “not something about schools returning”.
He added: “It would be very misleading to imply they had a role in terms of any form of spread in Leicester”.
However, Dr Harries said the local lockdown in Leicester is an example of what is “much more likely to happen as we go forwards”.
Meanwhile the Education Secretary bizarrely claimed the curriculum will not be “watered down” – despite his own guidance to schools saying it will.
Mr Williamson claimed: “It is going to be a full and total curriculum that is going to be delivered for our children across all subjects.
“It’s incredibly important that we have the same standards and rigour across our education system as we come out of lockdown as we had going into it.
“We are not going to be in a situation where we see vital subjects cut out of children’s education.
“So, the idea that there will be a watered-down curriculum is totally, totally untrue.”
Yet government guidance clearly says “substantial modification to the curriculum may be needed at the start of the year.
It goes on: “Schools may consider it appropriate to suspend some subjects for some pupils in exceptional circumstances.”
And it says a full curriculum will be expected to be restored by summer 2021.