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Coronavirus Northern Ireland: Schools not 'major source' of virus transmission

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Pupils return to class last August.

Pupils return to class last August.

Pupils return to class last August.

Schools in Northern Ireland are not a major source of the transmission of Covid-19, the Public Health Agency (PHA) has said.

During a meeting with the principals of special schools last month the PHA said that transmission of the virus in schools "does occur but tends to be small scale".

The BBC has reported meetings are ongoing between education officials, school principals and union representatives ahead of the planned reopening of all schools on March 8.

Coronavirus Data Graphs

The Executive is set to meet on Thursday to discuss the reopening and other Covid-19 restrictions.

As part of the PHA presentation it emerged that 190 out of 194 secondary schools in Northern Ireland had at least one case of coronavirus in the 2020/21 school year.

Almost 70% of 792 primary schools also had at least one positive case of the virus.

The PHA said the virus in schools "reflect community prevalence" and was not a "major driver" of the second wave of Covid-19.

They said that as cases in the community fall there would also be a reduction in positive cases in schools.

The PHA said that schools transmission occurred on a limited basis and that children were less affected by the virus "in prevalence and severity".

Referring to new variants, the presentation warned that new variants of Covid-19 were more infectious across all age groups, but not worse in children.

The PHA said that preventative measures, including social distancing, good hand and respiratory hygiene and class bubbles had proved effective in stopping the spread of the virus.

Dr Joanne McClean, Consultant in Public Health Medicine with the PHA, said the presentation was given around a month ago to special school principals.

She told BBC Radio Ulster's Nolan Show it was centered on the risk to staff working in special schools.

Some special schools in Northern Ireland remain open despite the restrictions to care for pupils.

Dr McClean said staff were concerned they were being put at risk while others were allowed to stay at home.

"The purpose of the presentation was to present these special school principals the evidence that we have around transmission in schools, and special schools in particular," she explained.

Dr McClean said that while the risk to staff was not zero, "what the evidence has shown us so far is that staff in schools are not more likely to become infected or become really unwell with coronavirus than other members of the workforce".

She said an Office of National Statistics (ONS) study found that staff working in schools are not at greater risk than other workers.

The PHA consultant accepted that schools contribute to the transmission of the virus in the community, increasing the R number by 0.3-0.6.

"The contribution comes not just from what goes on in the classroom, but what goes on around schools," Dr McClean said.

It comes as Queen's University virologist Dr Connor Bamford has warned opening schools before April will result in Northern Ireland enduring another deadly surge of Covid-19.

"We need to get cases down as low as possible before we start to ease restrictions - we saw what happened when the schools went back last September and we never really got on top of community transmission from there," he said.

On Sunday Dr Tom Black, the chairman of the British Medical Association in Northern Ireland, said it would be a "big ask" to reopen secondary schools on March 8. Schools were closed until at least that date at the start of January.

But speaking on BBC NI's Sunday Politics programme, he said the reopening of primary schools was more likely because transmission infection in younger children is much lower.


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