It is “vitally important” children go back to school, with the life chances of a generation at stake, Boris Johnson has said in a message to parents.

As the autumn term begins in Northern Ireland, the prime minister said the risk of contracting coronavirus at schools across the UK was “very small”.

He said “it is far more damaging for a child’s development and their health… to be away from school any longer”.

Mr Johnson’s words echoed those of the UK’s four chief medical officers.

They have all signed a joint statement alongside deputy chief medical officers to reassure parents schools could mitigate risks during the pandemic.

In Scotland, schools have already reopened. Some pupils in Northern Ireland are returning to school on Monday, while term starts in England and Wales in September.

Mr Johnson thanked school staff for spending the summer “making classrooms Covid-secure”, in a statement released on Sunday evening.

And in a video message shared on Twitter, he said children faced physical and mental health risks from not being in the classroom.

“The best way to tackle any mental health problems is to get our kids into school in September,” he added.

Citing comments from England’s chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty at the weekend, Mr Johnson said the risk of catching coronavirus in school was “very small and it is far more damaging for a child’s development and their health and wellbeing to be away from school any longer”.

“This is why it’s vitally important that we get our children back into the classroom to learn and to be with their friends,” he added.

“Nothing will have a greater effect on the life chances of our children than returning to school.”

Prof Whitty said on Sunday that children were more likely to be harmed by not returning to school next month than if they caught coronavirus.

He cited evidence of children “much less commonly” needing hospital treatment or becoming severely ill with coronavirus than adults.

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