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Inevitable Covid-19 outbreak in schools is ‘price we must pay’

Data from the Department of Health shows that fewer than 3% of children under 14 years have been diagnosed with Covid-19.

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Data from the Department of Health shows that fewer than 3% of children under 14 years have been diagnosed with Covid-19 (Liam McBurney/PA)

Data from the Department of Health shows that fewer than 3% of children under 14 years have been diagnosed with Covid-19 (Liam McBurney/PA)

Data from the Department of Health shows that fewer than 3% of children under 14 years have been diagnosed with Covid-19 (Liam McBurney/PA)

The inevitable cases and outbreaks of Covid-19 in schools is a “price we must pay” in order to reopen the education sector, a top public health expert has said.

HSE chief clinical officer Dr Colm Henry said that international evidence shows that child-to-child transmission in a school setting “is relatively uncommon”.

Dr Henry told the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response that when a coronavirus case is confirmed in a school, a risk assessment approach will be taken.

“Emerging evidence shows that child-to-child transmission in a school setting is relatively uncommon as we gain more evidence of the behaviour of this virus, particularly in education settings as they open up in other countries.

“That said, it’s inevitable that there will be cases and maybe even outbreaks, and that’s a price we must pay in order to open schools again with all the educational and health and welfare benefits it brings to children.

“Public health  departments will apply the same principles as they do to outbreaks in any setting, and that’s a risk assessment approach.

“So they will look at the individual characteristics of the school and the rates of community transmission and whether or not the number of cases and the serious illness that might emerge, which is very uncommon in children, the capability of the school to adhere to infection-prevention guidelines.

“It is not a tick-box exercise, it’s an individual assessment based on a set of principles by public health consultants.”

Dr Henry also said that children who have the “sniffles” do not a warrant a Covid-19 test and can continue attending school, however pupils with more specific symptoms, such as cough or respiratory issues, loss of taste or loss of smell, should isolate and seek a test.

Acting chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn also told the committee on Wednesday that children spreading Covid-19 to other children in schools is “relatively uncommon” and that schools are not a “key driver” of community transmission.

Data from the Department of Health shows that fewer than 3% of children under 14 years have been diagnosed with Covid, and of those 42 children have been hospitalised.

Professor Philip Nolan, chairman of the NPHET Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group, said it is much more likely that adults moving around society, in workplaces and other settings, are more likely to transmit the virus between households.

Professor Nolan said the reopening of schools is a “carefully judged prioritisation”.

Sinn Fein’s Donnchadh O Laoghaire raised the issue of schools that have a lack of capacity, leaving students unable to socially distance.

Mr O Laoghaire said: “We have an underfunded and overcrowded education system and a grotesque sign of that is an isolation room at a national school, in a garden shed in Athlone.

“I put the blame on the Department of Education for underfunding.”

Dr Glynn said that he expects the vast majority of older children in national schools and all students in secondary school to maintain a distance of one metre from one another.

PA