This primary school in Wales has put social distancing measures in place
Chris Fairweather/Huw Evans/Shutterstock
The UK faces a second wave of coronavirus infections this winter if the country’s testing and contact tracing system doesn’t improve by the time schools fully reopen and people return to workplaces, researchers have warned.
Jasmina Panovska-Griffiths at University College London (UCL) and her colleagues found that there is a risk of the UK experiencing a second peak in December that will be more than twice the size of the first one. Her team modelled the amount of testing and tracing needed to stop the virus rebounding as society eases restrictions.
If all children in the UK return to school by early September, as is currently planned, and almost three-quarters of people return to workplaces, the UK would need to be testing 75 per cent of symptomatic covid-19 cases to stay on top of the spread of the virus, the researchers found. The current rate in England, which the team used as a basis for their UK modelling, is 50 per cent. The proportion of their contacts traced would have to jump from about 50 per cent in England now to 68 per cent for the whole of the UK.
“It needs to improve,” said Russell Viner at UCL, who also worked on the study, during a press conference by the team.
“Plans have been put in place to ensure schools can re-open safely. Local health officials, using the latest data, will able to determine the best action to take to help curb the spread of the virus should there be a rise in cases,” says a spokesperson for the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care.
The analysis comes amid wider questions about the role of children in transmitting the virus, as many countries across the world prepare to reopen schools in September, though some such as Scotland will reopen within days.
Initial research has been inconclusive but has indicated that the risk of children catching covid-19 at a school may be lower than first feared. A study published on Monday supports that, finding transmission rates were low at 15 schools and 10 pre-school childcare centres in the Australian state of New South Wales amid a first wave of infections. Only three of the schools and one of the centres saw secondary transmission of the virus. “Transmission in educational settings can be kept low and manageable,” writes the team led by Kristine Macartney at the University of Sydney.
Panovska-Griffiths said her team found there was little difference in the model’s results regardless of whether it was assumed children were 50 or 100 per cent as susceptible to transmitting the virus as adults.
“We have stronger evidence that children play a very limited role in transmission,” said Viner. “They do transmit this virus, there can be outbreaks in schools. (But) studies like this New South Wales paper show there’s very little evidence they drive significant elements of this in schools.”
Most of the outbreaks at schools appear to have been triggered by staff rather than children, he said.
Debate over school reopenings returned to the fore after England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty said on 31 July that new data suggested the country has “probably reached near the limit or the limits of what we can do in terms of opening up society”. Difficult trade-offs on restrictions would be needed, he said.
Graham Medley at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), one of the government’s scientific advisers, subsequently said that might mean closing pubs to allow schools to reopen.
The research shows what is needed to allow schools to reopen, said Chris Bonell at LSHTM, who worked on the UK modelling study. “Schools absolutely have to go back in September, it’s critical for the economy and for children’s education and wellbeing. It’s the most important of all the reopenings,” he said.
In the US, which has some of the highest daily infection rates in the world, President Donald Trump has pushed for schools to reopen but state authorities are wrestling over whether it can be done safely.
Journal reference: The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, DOI: 10.1016/S2352-4642(20)30250-9
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