Emerging evidence indicates reopening schools is “among the safest things” that can be done in the next few months, the Taoiseach has said.
Leo Varadkar also suggested children may be allowed to meet and hug their grandparents again during the summer.
His comments came as the Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) said children were not substantially contributing to the spread of Covid-19 in their households or in schools.
But Ireland’s chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan struck a note of caution later on Wednesday, stressing not enough studies had been conducted to conclude for certain that children do not transmit the disease.
He said he did not anticipate any imminent change on the National Public Health Emergency Team’s advice that schools should not reopen until September.
Earlier, Hiqa published summaries investigating the international evidence on immunity and the spread of the virus by children.
It said that, while evidence was limited, children were not significant contributors to the spread.
Mr Varadkar and Health Minister Simon Harris spoke with Dr Mike Ryan of the World Health Organisation (WHO) on Wednesday about the issue.
Speaking in Dublin, Mr Varadkar said the “emerging evidence is that among the safest things that we can do over the next couple of months is to reopen our schools, to reopen our childcare facilities to allow children to return to education and return to normal life”.
Schools and childcare facilities have been closed since March but the Taoiseach hinted they could open ahead of schedule in light of the new evidence.
“I think it wouldn’t be a good reflection on us, as a society, for us to be the last people who are able to reopen our schools and reopen our childcare facilities,” he said.
“We need to make sure we do it safely and work with the education sector and the childcare sector to make sure that it’s possible, but it is encouraging that there is growing evidence that those who are at least risk from the virus are children, young people … they don’t appear to be super-spreaders, and I think that is very significant.”
Dr Holohan was asked about the Taoiseach’s comments at his daily Covid-19 briefing on Wednesday evening.
He said in “broad terms” he would not disagree with Mr Varadkar.
But he insisted further studies were needed before definitive conclusions could be drawn.
“Those that have looked at this question haven’t identified significant patterns of transmission among children,” he said.
“It’s an entirely different thing to conclude in policy terms that we have enough evidence to say that transmission from children doesn’t occur, but as yet it hasn’t been identified as a significant thing in the small numbers of studies that have been done.”
He added: “I’m not anticipating at this moment in time any changes in relation to schools and the advice that will give in relation to that.”
Dr Holohan concluded: “We think there’s good reason to believe that maybe children don’t have as significant an experience of this disease when it occurs, but the world and the scientific community isn’t ready to conclude that transmission involving children doesn’t happen.”
Commenting on the report, Hiqa deputy chief executive Dr Mairin Ryan said: “One study suggests that, while there is high transmission of Covid-19 among adults aged 25 years or older, transmission is lower in younger people, particularly in those under 14 years of age.
“An Australian study that examined potential spread from 18 confirmed (nine students and nine staff) cases to over 800 close contacts in 15 different schools found that no teacher or staff member contracted Covid-19 from any of the initial school cases.
“One child from a primary school and one child from a high school may have contracted Covid-19 from the initial cases at their schools.”
When asked if grandparents would be able to visit their grandchildren this summer, Mr Varadkar said: “I think those things, assuming everything else goes in the right direction, will be possible over the course of the summer, but won’t be among the actions being announced for Monday.
“Everybody wants grandparents to be able to hug their grandchildren again.”