Health minister Matt Hancock launched a study to find out the prevalence and spread of the coronavirus among school children and teachers in England on Tuesday to help inform the phased reintroduction of education after a lengthy national lockdown.
The decision to gradually re-open schools has divided opinion, with Britain suffering the second-worst international death toll from COVID-19 and ministers warning of the need for caution to prevent a second wave of the virus.
The study will look to establish how widespread the virus is among children, who typically show mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, and how effectively they transmit the disease.
“This study will help us better understand how common asymptomatic and mild cases of COVID-19 are so that we can support parents, pupils and teachers and support-staff, and inform our ongoing response to this new virus,” Hancock said in a statement.
Selected age groups have been able to attend schools since the beginning of the month, although some educators decided not to re-open because they said it was not safe. Older students will also begin some schooling from June 15.
The voluntary study will be administered by the Public Health England agency and will collect data from around 200 staff and pupils at up to 100 English schools.
Researchers will use both swab tests – which check whether a person currently has the virus – and blood tests, which check whether the person has previously had the virus and developed antibodies to it.
Data will also be fed into wider government programmes designed to establish how widespread COVID-19 is, and has been, throughout the community in order to help form policy and develop new tests and treatments.