24.07.2024

Ministers warned to plan for ‘exponential’ Covid infections in schools

Members of the government’s committee on pandemic modelling, the SPI-M-O, say the removal of measures such as wearing face masks, and the lack of vaccinations, will mean children will be susceptible to the virus as the level of infection in the wider community is higher than in May.

The re-opening of schools next month is likely to trigger an exponential rise in Covid infections among children, government experts have warned.

The group warned ministers to plan for potential outbreaks in schools ahead of them re-opening in England next month.

Their warning comes as Sage member and director of the Wellcome Trust, Sir Jeremy Farrar, warned there will be a surge in infections this winter, adding: “Vaccines have amazingly weakened the link between infections and illness and hospitalisations, but not broken it. No one wants to reimpose restrictions but we face a challenging winter.

“I do believe we need an informed public debate on the options through 2021 and 2022. The infection is not going away, we have incredible tools (tests, treatment, vaccines). No one wants restrictions reimposed but we will have to accept some illness, hospitalisations and deaths.”

The latest infection survey from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show infection rates increasing across all four UK nations in the week ending 20 August. One in 70 people in England would now likely test positive for the virus.

In a newly released paper, written on 11 August, the SPI-M-O group warned of the risks of infection for children.

It said: “Schools will represent a high proportion of remaining susceptible individuals and it is highly likely that exponential increases will be seen in school-attending age groups after schools open. Vaccination will also have made almost no difference in these population groups over the summer holidays. When schools reopen, the mitigations in place to limit transmission within schools will be much reduced compared to the spring and summer terms. Additionally, the prevalence of infection in the community and school-age groups will be higher than in May 2021.”

The group developed a model based on infections within schools, which did not account for extra transmission of the virus within communities outside schools. It assumed school bubbles no longer existed and the paper warned it also did not account for any increase as a result of not wearing masks or other measures, meaning it could “underestimate within-school transmission on reopening.”

Children have a very low risk of serious illness from Covid, with some research estimating a one-in-50,000 chance of a child being admitted to intensive care, but they can still suffer longer-term consequences.

Earlier this month the ONS estimated 34,000 children in the UK were suffering from long Covid.

The SPI-M-O model considered immunity levels of up to 70 per cent, showing each one led to a smaller spike in infections. At the highest level of immunity the virus R-rate, or reproduction value, remains below one, meaning infections won’t rise.

But any lower levels of immunity in the modelling all lead to exponential growth and outbreaks in schools.

The paper concluded: “While this analysis focuses on within-school transmission, schools are also inevitably linked to any community epidemic. Within SPI-M-O, there is no consensus whether schools are major or effective drivers of community transmission or merely good indicators of it.

“It is highly likely that high prevalence will be seen within schools by the end of September 2021. This may reflect either community or within-school transmission, and the role of schools in driving wider transmission remains uncertain. Regardless of this, it would be sensible for government to plan for this eventuality.”

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