SCHOOLS in Tier 4 areas face staying shut because of the new strain of Covid.
It could take three weeks to find out if the latest curbs will cut transmission and let pupils go back in January, MPs heard.
Tier 4 will cover 43 per cent of England from Boxing Day and officials say the reopening of schools is now “all down to the science”.
But Government adviser Professor Neil Ferguson said there had been explosive Covid outbreaks at schools in London and the South East.
Prof Ferguson said scientists were working as fast as they could to work out if it would be safe.
He told the Commons Science and Technology committee: “We don’t have evidence of any change in transmissibility in children. What we have is a slight shift in age distribution.”
Current plans involve a staggered return for secondary schools, with pupils taught at home and online before returning to classes. Primary pupils are due to go back as usual.
‘SHIFT IN AGE DISTRIBUTION’
But the new Covid strain has sent cases rocketing, is 50 to 70 per cent more infectious and initial tests suggest children are more likely to transmit it than the original.
Home Secretary Priti Patel also stoked fears schools would be shut until February when she would only say pupils would return “eventually”.
Yesterday, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick played down those fears, telling Times Radio: “They will definitely be back in January. We want to keep schools open.”
Hours later, Professor Ferguson, a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), told MPs there were many unanswered questions about why children were more likely to catch the new variant.
He said: “For previous strains of this virus we know children were less likely to get infected and certainly less likely to get symptoms than adults.
“One possibility is this virus has changed in some way which doesn’t particularly target children, just makes children more like adults a little bit. But we have very little direct biological, never mind experimental, evidence.
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“There’s a slight shift in the age distribution. While it is a significant shift, it’s not a huge shift. It’s relatively small.”
Professor Ferguson was the architect of the first national lockdown in the spring after warning of half a million deaths in the UK over two years without restrictions.
He controversially returned as an adviser despite being forced to quit when he broke lockdown rules in May to see his married lover.