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Independent Sage scientists have said the government’s decision to remove Covid-19 mitigation measures from schools in September is “reckless”, and risks causing more cases and hospitalisations among the young.
Positive cases will go up as soon as children start the new term, scientists sitting on the panel have said today. Antibody levels among 16-year-olds are believed to be at just 37%, meaning many are still vulnerable to contracting the virus.
Guidance from the Department for Education is for lateral flow tests to be taken by pupils in first week of the new term, and then to take two a week until the end of the month.
Anyone with a positive lateral flow test will be asked to self-isolate until they get the result of a PCR test. If it is negative, they can continue going to school.
If students test positive, contact tracing will no longer be conducted by school staff but by the NHS Test and Trace scheme. Children under 18 will no longer have to isolate at all if they are a close contact and instead they will be encouraged to get a PCR test.
“We’ve removed masks, we’ve removed bubbles. We’ve removed contact tracing, we’ve removed [asking] contacts to isolate, we’ve removed social distancing,” Dr Christina Pagel, Director of University College London’s Clinical Operational Research Unit and Independent Sage scientist, said today.
“We’re a country where we’re not vaccinating [the young]. We’re not making schools safer. And we’re also not protecting schools by having transmission there in the community. We’re pretty much the only high-income country that is doing none of those things. So I personally think this is a reckless approach.”
The risk in schools is compounded by high community transmission, even with the beneficial impact of the vaccine, with on average 25,000 cases a day compared to 800 cases a year ago.
Hospital admissions are also ten times higher than they were 12 months ago, according to the latest government data.
Sixteen and 17 year olds are now eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine but unlike many European countries and the US 12 to 15 year olds remain unvaccinated.
Official statistics show that around ten to 50 children are admitted to hospital a day with Covid-19, far lower numbers than adults. However Dr Pagel said this summer’s numbers for admissions are the same in terms of the admission levels of the January peak.
Dr Pagel said: “For different age groups we’re having a different pandemic experience. For children they are back in the peak without the protection that we have from vaccination.”
Government statistics also show that in first wave there were 1,300 admissions in children under 18. Between 1 September 2020 and end of April this year there were over 4,000 admissions and since 1 May there have been 2,000 admissions, and Dr Pagel said this peak is not over yet.
“Whenever children have gone to school in context of high community rates, cases in kids have increased rapidly. I can’t see why it would be too different this time. And, this will lead to more hospitalisations,” she said.
Dr Zubaida Haque, former interim director of the Runnymede Trust race equality think tank who sits on Independent Sage, said the risks might be even more serious now for children and their families who are clinically vulnerable and clinically extremely vulnerable.
“Arguably the dangers of Covid for children will be higher in September given every mitigation in schools has been scrapped,” she said.
Earlier this week a study released by Public Health England found that Covid-19 case rates in schools were more than three times higher during the second wave of infections last autumn rather than this year’s third wave.
The research based on swabs from 141 primary and secondary schools found that 0.42% of secondary school pupils tested positive this June, compared with 1.48% in November 2020.
This data has been used to justify claims that schools are not “hubs” for infection.
However the Independent Sage scientists believe the lack of virus mitigations from next term will change the picture for transmission, and there are still many improvements government should be spearheading before pupils return in September.
Better ventilation for schools is also crucial, according to Professor Gabriel Scally, a Professor of Public Health at University of Bristol and former Regional Director of Public Health in England.
Like public schools in New York, he said it was well worth the government considering portable filtration for classrooms to improve air quality.
“We need a prevent and mitigate strategy. Prevention doesn’t consist of a lateral flow test,” Scally said.
“Prevention in schools consists of more space and a year ago Independent Sage was talking about schools expanding their premises to put up marquees, move stuff outdoors so people could be spaced out and things could be better ventilation.
“Upgrading our mask wearing as well. We know masks are effective and the Delta variant is much more infectious. The response is entirely inappropriate.”
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control guidance for schools in relation to the Delta variant is that there should be in-school mitigation measures to reduce transmission in September.
The United States Centre for Disease Control now recommends masks indoors in schools for teachers, staff, visitors regardless of vaccination status.
In Scotland there are no longer blanket isolation rules when a student tests positive, but face coverings for secondary schoolchildren and staff will still be mandatory for six weeks and staff will have to operate social distancing of one metre apart while on the school site.
Schools in England can reintroduce mitigation measures if they think they are needed by working on a plan with local public health officials.
The Department for Education is also asking schools to have in place outbreak management plans outlining how they would operate if they suddenly did have a high number of cases, and to call a helpline if there are several cases in 14 days.
However, they added “measures in schools should only ever be considered as a last resort” due to the disruption to education.
The Department for Education has said schools should ensure their rooms have good ventilation and take steps to improve the flow of fresh air.
A spokesperson said: “Areas where ventilation is poor should be proactively identified so that steps can be taken to improve fresh air flow if needed.”
Independent Sage was founded by Sir David King, the former chief scientific advisor, and is unaffiliated to government. The UK government takes its advice from Sage, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.
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