SCHOOL transport costs in County Durham could soar by almost £40 million if ministers cannot find a better way of getting children back into classrooms from September.

While most pupils are yet to return due to coronavirus restrictions, current rules have slashed the numbers sanctioned to travel together safely.

And even if education bosses at Durham County Council could find the cash needed to pay for travel in the next academic year, there is not thought to be enough capacity in the system to make it a reality.

Liberal Democrat opposition Councillor Mark Wilkes said: “I’ve seen estimates that the school transport budgets could need to be four times their current rate.

“I think we’re currently spending about £13 million on home to school transport and there’s a risk here we need to find another £39 million for home to school transport provision.

“We don’t have, potentially, the capacity within the transport system to actually operate this.

“How much do we have to reduce distancing in terms of the home to school transport system in order to get the vehicles we need and also to be able to afford to do this?”

Cllr Wilkes was speaking at Thursday's meeting of the county council’s Children and Young People’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee, which was held by videolink and broadcast via YouTube.

John Pearce, the council’s corporate director of Children and Young People’s Service, told the panel Department for Education (DfE) advice was yet to be updated to reflect new social distancing guidelines.

He said: “The figures are based on two-metre social distancing and we have a protocol based on that which effectively reduces capacity to about a quarter on transport.

“If you take that to its logical conclusion, it would cost us four times as much and we would not have the capacity.

“What we don’t know yet is what impact the one-metre change will have or any guidance on school transport.”

He added: “Current guidance predates the change to social distancing, but it is a significant risk and even if funding was not an issue.

“£39 million is a very significant issue, the capacity would not be there to provide the transport required and we have made that really clear.”