On 4 May, many scientists, union representatives and parents, including myself, wrote an open letter to the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, warning against removal of mask requirements in English secondary schools from 17 May. We cautioned that this could lead to outbreaks in schools driven by new variants and significant educational disruption. The warnings were ignored.
Schools are now facing very high rates of transmission, with 375,000 children in England missing school for Covid-19-related reasons.
Not only has the Delta variant rapidly spread through schools, and back into the community– helping this highly transmissible variant become dominant – it has also given rise to the third wave of the pandemic, with rapid growth in cases and an increase in hospitalisations. Rather than “follow the data”, as the government claims it has done, it tried to suppress the data on early spread of the variant in schools, despite threats of legal action.
Now it has decided to solve the problem by fixing the numbers of children isolating, without dealing with the root cause. If the problem isn’t visible, it doesn’t exist.
How so? Ministers are looking into doing away with the need for student contacts of positive cases to isolate, replacing it with daily tests that return results in 30 minutes. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has made clear that Orient Gene tests that were used in school trials have not been authorised for “daily testing of contacts”. Similar tests, such as Innova, have recently been withdrawn by the FDA in the US with warnings that using these could “further spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus” because of the risk of false results. The MHRA has also warned against using such tests as “green lights” – where negative tests would permit certain activities.
What we see now is a false dichotomy between doing away with isolation, thus exposing more children to the virus, or facing mass educational disruption. It’s as if the problem is students isolating, rather than the virus itself. The government (and much of media) has narrowed the discussion to these two options: parents must choose between having their children educated, or accepting them getting infected.
If children aren’t at high risk, some say, why not simply let them get infected? Vaccination has not been offered to adolescents in the UK despite about 6 million under-18s having been vaccinated in the US, and young people being vaccinated in many other countries. Moreover, it is still the case that children, families and communities are massively impacted by infection. Office for National Statistics figures show that between 7% and 8% of children have persistent symptoms of long Covid, lasting 12 weeks or more. There are currently an estimated 33,000 children with long Covid in the UK, with 7,000 who have had symptoms lasting for over one year.
The long-term consequences of this virus in children are not known, but early signs are worrying. Links with new-onset Type 1 diabetes in children are being examined. Many children with long Covid have lasting cognitive symptoms such as brain fog, difficulty with concentration and memory. While the impact of this in the brain has not been studied in children, the virus has been shown to invade the brain in adults, and is associated with significant thinning of brain matter in key areas, even among those with mild infection. Similar research has not been done in children, but we know that children exhibit similar symptoms to adults with long Covid. We also know that parents of children in schools are at higher risk of infection and hospitalisation compared with their counterparts.
So what is the solution? It’s clear that educational disruption is bad forfamilies and children. Why not deal with the root cause of the problem, as many other authorities have done, by controlling transmission? Israel has re-introduced masks in schools after recent outbreaks, despite their higher levels of vaccination. New York is investing in air filtration devices in classrooms, which have shown to be effective in containing spread. Adolescents should be vaccinated. Multilayered mitigations can substantially reduce risk of transmission in schools, and back into households.
Our children and parents have been completely failed by government during this crisis. Parents have been forced to send children, who have not been given the option of vaccine protection, to unsafe classrooms where they share air with other infected children, based on misplaced government faith in unreliable tests, fully knowing this could leave their children with a chronic debilitating illness. That our political leaders are willing to expose children to mass infection from a novel virus that we don’t understand the long-term consequences of is gravely concerning.