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More staff, extra teaching space and greater clarity on what to do if there is a spike in cases is needed for schools to reopen safely, the UK’s largest teaching union has said.

The National Education Union (NEU) accused the government of letting down pupils, teachers and parents by failing to have a “plan B” if infections rise.

The UK’s four chief medical officers have insisted it is safe to return.

The education secretary said ministers were doing “everything we can” to help.

Millions of pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are due to return to school in the coming days and weeks. In Scotland, schools have already reopened.

Writing in the Sunday Times, Gavin Williamson said he wanted to reassure every parent and pupil that schools were “ready for them”, and the autumn return to schools was “more important than ever” this year.

Meanwhile, a further six deaths have been announced in the UK, bringing the total number of people to have died within 28 days of testing positive for coronavirus to 41,429.

On Saturday, the UK’s chief medical adviser warned that children were more likely to be harmed by not returning to the classroom in September than if they catch coronavirus.

Prof Chris Whitty said “the chances of children dying from Covid-19 are incredibly small” – but missing lessons “damages children in the long run”.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU, which represents more than 450,000 members, said the union agreed about the benefits of pupils returning to full-time education, but ministers needed to provide more information on what to do in the event of an outbreak.

“Government advice needs to cover the possible self-isolation of bubbles and, in extremis, moving to rotas or to more limited opening. It needs to cover advice to heads about the protections needed for staff in high-risk categories if infection rates rise.”

Extra staff should be employed and additional teaching space provided so education can continue “in a Covid-secure manner” if infections rise, Mr Courtney said.

He added: “This should include employment of student teachers who have finished their courses and not yet found jobs, as well as mobilisation of supply staff.”

In a joint statement, the nations’ four chief medical officers said: “The current global pandemic means that there are no risk-free options, but it is important that parents and teachers understand the balance of risks to achieve the best course of action for their children.”

The statement said evidence suggested schools were “probably not a common route of transmission”.

The NASUWT teachers’ union said the “critical importance” of social distancing and hygiene had been reinforced by the chief medical officers’ statement.

Of the more than one million children who attended pre-school and primary schools in England in June, 70 children and 128 staff were infected in outbreaks of the virus, according to a Public Health England study published on Sunday.

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