Call for Lancashire pupils to stay at home after half term to halt Covid spread
Lancashire’s schools should remain shut for a week after the half term break in an attempt to stem the spread of the Covid variant first identified in India.
That is the call from Lancashire's representative on the executive of the National Education Union (NEU), who says that combining this week’s holiday with a period of home learning - for all but the children of key workers and vulnerable children - could act as a so-called “circuit breaker” to slow transmission.
Ian Watkinson, who also chairs the NEU’s health and safety group, believes that the move would not only be the best way of disrupting the virus - but would also cause less disruption to education than having multiple ‘bubbles’ of children sent into self-isolation because of concern over contact with possible Covid cases.
He was speaking after the NEU last week wrote to two of Lancashire’s directors of public health officially requesting a fortnight-long half-term closure for schools in Blackburn with Darwen and Burnley, which then both had the highest case rates in the county.
However, the most recent data has shown a deteriorating picture elsewhere - with the rolling weekly infection rate per 100,000 people more than trebling in Blackburn with Darwen and Preston, more than quadrupling in Hyndburn and South Ribble, going up over six times in Fylde, nine times in Ribble Valley and 15 times in Rossendale across the 14-days from 13th to 27th May.
Three areas of the county - Blackpool, Lancaster and Wyre - saw their rates fall over the same period.
However, Lancashire districts currently account for eight out of the top 20 worst-affected areas in the UK on the Covid case rate measure - Blackburn with Darwen (1st), Rossendale (3rd), Hyndburn (4th), Ribble Valley (9th), Burnley (11th), Preston (12th), South Ribble (13th) and Chorley (19th).
Analysis by the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) shows that in Blackburn with Darwen and Rossendale, case rates are highest amongst 10-14 year olds followed by 15-19-year-olds. That position is reversed in Preston.
Elsewhere, 15-19-year-olds have the highest case rates of any age group in Blackpool, South Ribble and Wyre and the second-highest in Chorley and Ribble Valley. The highest case rate in Fylde can be found amongst 10-14-year-olds.
Against that backdrop, Mr. Watkinson says that a circuit breaker for schools would “seem to be the right call at this time”.
“If things continue on the same trajectory, we are going to be fire-fighting outbreaks in the way we have been doing previously - the science points to it.
“SAGE [the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] recommended a circuit breaker last year and it was ignored - and we saw what happened.
“Clearly, it’s schools that are driving transmission. We have got people travelling across boundary lines between boroughs, so it's spreading.
“We’ve been here before and nobody wants an entire county lockdown of some sort imposed on us by central government. Even with some parts of Lancashire not yet suffering as much as others, if an extra circuit break week or two of remote learning countywide could curb the spread of the so-called Indian variant, then it’s got to be worth considering,” said Mr. Watkinson.
As the LDRS revealed last week, almost 2,500 Lancashire school pupils were told to go into self-isolation in the seven days to 23rd May - with Chorley and Rossendale accounting for more than half of that total. Eleven Central Lancashire schools were affected by self-isolations over the same period.
SAGE, which advises the government, has stated that there is a “realistic possibility” that the Indian variant - now officially named “Delta” by the World Health Organisation - is around 50 percent more transmissible than the Kent variant that has been dominant in the UK since late last year.
While some parents may balk at the prospect of even a brief return to blanket remote learning, Mr. Watkinson says that it may be better for pupils' education than an ever-increasing number of bubbles being put into self-isolation.
“Where schools stay open [during multiple self-isolations], the disruption to learning is huge and remote learning can't be staffed. But if schools close fully - other than to key worker and vulnerable children - they can deliver effective remote learning.
“Looking ahead, we also need to examine really closely what else can be done in schools - because it’s not just about this variant, it's about the other ones that are going to come along and [the need] to have things in place to take account of that.
“Everyone can put together a brilliant risk assessment - but if you're going to insist on full classrooms, with 30 kids and poor ventilation, then it’s not hard to work out what’s going to happen.
“[The government] needs to invest more in mitigation strategies - whether that’s better ventilation, smaller classes or more teachers - all the kind of stuff that’s going to bring down the number of people rammed into a classroom, breathing in the virus and taking it home to spread in the community,” said Mr. Watkinson, who added that it was “interesting” that some other parts of the world had now moved to vaccinate children.
Both the United States and Canada have expanded use of the Pfizer jab to incorporate children aged 12 upwards, while medical regulators in the EU also approved its use from that age earlier this month.
However, there is debate in the UK about the ethical and practical considerations of vaccinating children en masse against a disease that poses less risk to them than older age groups, but which they can nevertheless help to transmit.
The vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said on Sky News last weekend that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) was looking “very carefully” at the issue before making any recommendation - and stressed the need to ensure that vaccines were “incredibly safe before you give them to children”.
Commenting on the NEU’s call for a week of remote learning next week, a spokesperson for Lancashire County Council said: "We are currently advising schools to continue to follow the national government guidelines."
COVID CASE RATES IN OLDER CHILDREN ACROSS LANCASHIRE
The weekly rolling Covid case rates per 100,000 people in the 10-14 and 15-19-year-old age groups in each council area as at 27th May, followed by the overall rate across all ages.
Blackburn with Darwen - 921 (10-14); 913 (15-19); 416.2 (all ages)
Blackpool - 25 (10-14); 95 (15-19); 28.7 (all ages)
Burnley - 174 (10-14); 126 (15-19); 114.7 (all ages)
Chorley - 157 (10-14); 272 (15-19); 91.4 (all ages)
Fylde - 643 (10-14); 106 (15-19); 68.1 (all ages)
Hyndburn - 210 (10-14); 326 (15-19); 162.9 (all ages)
Lancaster - 26 (10-14); 67 (15-19); 26.7 (all ages)
Pendle - 168 (10-14); 119 (15-19); 83.6 (all ages)
Preston - 281 (10-14); 314 (15-19); 112.5 (all ages)
Ribble Valley - 212 (10-14); 338 (15-19); 129.7 (all ages)
Rossendale - 1,181 (10-14); 947 (15-19); 316.2 (all ages)
South Ribble - 122 (10-14); 327 (15-19); 105.6 (all ages)
West Lancashire - 30 (10-14); 27 (15-19); 15.2 (all ages)
Wyre - 16 (10-14); 110 (15-19); 15.2 (all ages)
MIND YOUR MASKS - DOES YOUR CHILD KNOW WHAT TO DO?
Schools in all parts of Lancashire except Blackpool were last month advised to continue to ensure their pupils wear masks in classrooms and communal areas - in spite of that recommendation being dropped at a national level.
Government guidance remains in place for how masks should be handled wherever they continue to be used.
To wear a face covering safely, you should:
***Clean your hands before and after touching it – including to remove it or put it on.
***Store face coverings in individual, sealable plastic bags between use.
***Not touch the front of face coverings during use or when removing them.
***Dispose of temporary face coverings in a ‘black bag’ waste bin - not a recycling bin.
***Not continue to use a mask if it becomes damp.
Source: Department for Education