The return of pupils to school could result in the R number increasing by as much as 50%, Northern Ireland’s top doctor has warned.
Dr Michael McBride, the chief medical officer, has again urged caution around the relaxation of measures currently in place to drive down Covid-19 infection rates.
Speaking at the Stormont health committee on Thursday morning, Dr McBride said the new variant poses a particular challenge given how infectious it is known to be.
He was responding to a question from deputy chair of the committee, Pam Cameron, as to whether the ongoing closure of schools is worth the potential harm being caused to at risk children.
It comes after the Department of Health revealed earlier this week that child protection referrals have dropped by more than a third since the beginning of the latest lockdown.
Dr McBride agreed that the pandemic has “had a devastating impact on children”.
Stressing that child protection services are still operating, Dr McBride said: “In terms of the impact on children, I think that we all recognise that this pandemic has had a very significant impact on children, children’s education, on children’s health and children’s mental health and well-being and the emotional impact of that.
“At all stages, the Executive has faced very difficult choices in terms of the risks associated with more interactions versus the benefits of restricting some of those social interactions, including the mixing that goes on within schools and the potential to drive the pandemic.
“As our experience of this virus has grown and as the evidence has accumulated, we know now that schools and mixing in schools does drive infections in the community and particularly in contacts with families.
“And particularly in the context of the new variant…the reopening of schools will certainly add significant upward pressure to R, there’s no doubt about that.
“That could be up as high as, it could be between 10 and 50% and it just depends to what extent schools are opened, when schools are opened and the degree of mitigations that are in place.
“Clearly the longer we delay the relaxation of restrictions, the more we suppress levels of community transmission, the more people we get vaccinated and protected and then that gradual easing of restrictions allows us to ensure we prioritise those things that matter most and the Executive has been very clear, the education of our children matters most and then in a phased and careful way, look at other easements and the other restrictions.”