Government scientists are so concerned about the risk of secondary schools fuelling cases of the new coronavirus strain they are drawing up plans for vaccination of teenage pupils, i can reveal.
A key action point from Sage’s latest meeting – dominated by discussion of the new variant – was for the UK’s vaccines authority to outline modelling requirements on immunisation in schools.
The i politics newsletter cut through the noise
Those present heard that the surge in cases in Kent, London and other parts of south east England associated with the new strain in November, was in part driven by secondary schools remaining open during the month-long lockdown in England.
Teenagers were passing on infections inside their households, official figures show.
Significant gear change
While the plans are in the early stages, an immunisation programme in schools would be a significant gear change from the current plans to introduce mass testing in secondaries when they return after the Christmas holiday.
No Covid-19 vaccine trials involving children have been completed, but in early December Moderna, one of the leading candidates of an effective jab, began testing its vaccine on the over-12s.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has been asked by Sage to begin modelling the plan, according to minutes of last Thursday’s meeting seen by i.
The JCVI is responsible for drawing up priority lists for people to receive the vaccine, with the eldest and clinically most vulnerable currently first in line.
‘Higher role of those aged 12-16’
Despite the month-long lockdown in November, cases began rising in Kent and London during the latter part of the month. It is now known that the cluster of the new variant began in Kent and spread to north east London.
According to the Sage minutes, figures from ONS suggest a “higher role of those aged 12-16 in introducing infection into households than those 17 and over”.
Infection rates in England fell shortly after October half term and rose a couple of weeks later, including during November lockdown and under the new Tier 3 in December.
By 12 December, more than 4 per cent of secondary school children in London had tested positive for coronavirus.
There are fears that, while other parts of society are locked down in Tier 4 in SE England, secondary school pupils can still spread infections and pass it on to their families.
This is likely to step up pressure for the Government to close secondary schools and switch to online learning. Sage have previously calculated that closing secondary schools would reduce R by 0.35, while the new strain is said to increase R by 0.40.
‘Rule nothing out’
Teachers and other school staff are not experiencing higher rates of infection than other professions and key workers, Sage concluded.
But the scientific advisers also raised concerns about variability of different bubbles and protection measures between schools, and said there should be more standardisation from the Department for Education.
Asked on BBC1’s Andrew Marr programme whether schools might be closed completely as under the first lockdown, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “I’ve learnt not to rule anything out in this pandemic.”
But he also said that the current plan was for schools to go back in January, with a staggered return for secondaries as mass testing is introduced.
— to inews.co.uk