January school closures considered as fears grow over new Covid strain's spread among children
The minister is considering keeping schools closed for all of January amid fears the new strain of Covid-19 will spread faster among children, according to The Telegraph.
Government scientists said they were concerned that children across the country could trigger a new surge in the virus as cases increased 55 percent in a week.
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The teaching unions have written to Boris Johnson demanding that he delay the reopening of schools next semester as there is growing evidence that the mutated variant is "more effective" in infecting children.
Scientists with the Advisory Group on New and Emerging Respiratory Viruses (Nervtag), which advises the government, expressed concerns that the new variant of the virus could spread far more effectively in children than the original strain.
They said this could explain why the virus rates continued to rise in some areas during the second lockdown when schools were open but more adults stayed home.
Concern that the new variant is spreading faster in children was voiced by Professor Neil Ferguson, the epidemiologist at Imperial College London, who sits on Nervtag and was instrumental in pushing the government for the first lockdown in March.
Prof. Ferguson said the data to date suggest that the new variant "has a higher propensity to infect children," with "statistically significantly higher" rates found in those under 15 compared to the standard virus.
Prof. Wendy Barclay, a member of Nervtag, said some of the changes in mutations caused "alarm bells" because they appeared to make viruses easier to spread.
This could explain why the virus spreads more easily in children, she said, with the standard virus relying on receptors that were easier to find in adults.
Prof. Barclay added that easy transmission in children could explain the rising virus rates across the country and the way in which infection rates in Kent and London had continued to rise during the November lockdown.
Prof. Ferguson said the hypothesis "could explain a significant portion, perhaps even most of the increase in transmission" observed since then.
The latest numbers for London - now the epicenter of the new pandemic wave - are highest among secondary school students, with 715.1 cases per 100,000 in children ages 15-19 and 613.5 cases in 10-14 year olds. The data is particularly worrying as scientists previously believed that Covid would spread less easily in school-age children.
Two government sources said an additional delay in the return of secondary school children - which has already been put on hold for a week by Gavin Williamson, the education secretary - may now be necessary. A source suggests some schools could stay closed until February.
A government source said: "They are looking for longer schools, possibly for all of January. The focus has been mostly on secondary schools, but they are not there yet. Discussions are ongoing.
"The government's view is clear that we are trying to keep schools open as long as possible as children may be harmed if they close. However, it really depends on whether they can find out more from the data."
The source suggested schools in Tier 4 regions, including London and the Southeast, would most likely return later if one continued.
A Whitehall source said: "There is urgent work to be done to see how much more communicable it can be in children. The hope is still that we can maintain a staggered start to school, but obviously this is something we are looking for." very accurate.
"Secondary schools are clearly the most likely to see a delay, but nothing has been decided."
Boris Johnson has refused to rule out extended school closings. The Prime Minister said he wanted the children to return in staggered form from the beginning of January "if we can" but that "it makes no sense to follow the path of the epidemic and, as we showed last Saturday, to keep things constant be checked ".
Schools were supposed to return on Jan. 4, but Mr Williamson has ordered a test week for most students and a return on Jan. 11, with only GCSE and A-level students returning on time along with vulnerable children and children of critical workers.
The plan has put the government on a collision course with teaching unions. The National Education Union (NEW), the UK's largest teachers union, has written to Mr Johnson demanding that all classes go online for a fortnight under the new Covid-19 variant and that the cases drop.
In yet another blow to Mr Williamson's plans to introduce bulk tests for students on their return, a senior scientist claimed that the rapid tests known as lateral flow tests may only capture a tiny fraction of positive cases.
The mass testing of students in schools and universities using lateral flow tests has been questioned by scientists. Professor Jon Deeks, Chair of Biostatistics at the University of Birmingham, said the tests may only pick up three percent of positive cases.
Two positive cases were found in lateral flow tests on 7,189 University of Birmingham students. However, when the university checked a sample of 710 tests with the more accurate PCR test, another six positive cases were found. If this was repeated across the sample, Birmingham missed another 60 positive tests.
Prof. Deeks told The Telegraph, "It is very worrying that the government is implementing these guidelines for mass testing. Based on this evidence, I do not believe we can use lateral flow testing for mass testing. It is very dangerous to rely on . " these tests. "
In the meantime, Prof. Ferguson has again emerged as the most influential advisor to the government during the current wave of Covid. He was one of the 15 members of Nervtag who met for two hours last Friday and came to the conclusion that the new Covid variant "has a significant improvement in transferability compared to other variants".
A day later, Mr Johnson made a spectacular U-turn, effectively canceling Christmas for millions of people in London and the South East as infections caused by the mutation increased.
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