The latest SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) briefing on education took place last week and I attended on behalf of PACEY members. It was an opportunity to hear up to date thinking and the latest evidence from some of the leading scientists advising government on its response to Covid-19. They used the briefing to focus on three key themes:
- Missing out on education is more of a risk to children and young people than becoming ill due to Covid-19
- Keeping schools and childcare settings open isn’t increasing the risk of transmission
- People working in schools and early years are at no greater risk of transmission than people in the wider community
So how come SAGE is saying this now? Well firstly as the pandemic continues, we are getting more and more evidence both from UK scientific studies and from abroad, in particular Australia and South Korea, about the role that children and young people are playing. Secondly, as the UK has increased its population testing for Covid-19, the evidence that children, especially teenagers, are playing a significant role in transmission has become more evident.
The SAGE scientists at the briefing – Dr Jenny Harries OBE, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England, Professor Viv Bennett Director, Nursing at Public Health England (PHE) and Russell Viner, Professor of Adolescent Health at the UCL Institute of Child Health in London and President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health – were clear this was probably happening from the very beginning of the pandemic. However, it was hidden because our testing regime was not up and running and most young people are asymptomatic and generally unaffected by the virus if they catch it.
The SAGE scientists also stressed there was evidence that most primary school children and younger play less of a role in transmission than children of secondary school age and older. This was linked to the fact that teenage behaviour is different – they have more social contact and that contact is usually more intense and prolonged than that of younger children.
Whilst the latest international evidence on the transmission of the virus in schools is limited, at the briefing the scientists said emerging evidence showed that transmission is more likely to be happening in the wider community than within schools and early years settings. This is probably because education settings are rigorously enforcing all the mitigations – handwashing, mask wearing, bubbles, isolation of staff and pupils with symptoms etc. This all helps to reduce the risk of transmission and the scientists took time to say how important this was in our efforts to control the virus and how much your efforts and those of other childcare providers and teachers were valued.
Alongside this we were all reminded that the rates of infection are varied across the UK too, and that if the number of cases in nurseries, schools or childminding settings are increasing this has to be viewed through the lens of the transmission rates in that local area.
The risk of infection for childminders, nursery staff, teachers and support staff was also discussed at length. The scientists stressed that there was no evidence that the workforce was at any greater risk of catching the virus than the general population in their local community. They referred to Australian and Swedish studies of childcare providers that showed that there was no difference in the infection rate for people working in those settings whether they were open or closed during the pandemic.
The briefing ended with lots of questions. These ranged from whether the wearing of masks in school all the time was better than in just shared areas (the evidence on this is still inconclusive) to how, as winter approached, schools, nurseries and childminders may need to consider how rooms are ventilated. The scientists were clear there is limited evidence on ventilation as yet but that research is underway and will be shared when complete. In the meantime they stressed that using common sense and doing what you can to improve air flow was important.
One positive was a discussion around the advent of new lateral flow tests that can tell people if they have the virus within an hour rather than in days. Whilst the scientists were clear that the decision on how to use these new types of test was for government, they were effective and could play a significant role in helping to control the virus and any outbreaks.
Given all this, the overarching message from the briefing remained that the risk of serious ill-health from Covid 19 for most children was very low. The greater risk remained prolonged periods away from their early education setting, school or college. Not just because they lose important teaching time but because their social , emotional and physical needs are impacted too.
Whilst the news of effective vaccines gives us all hope for the future, this briefing – to me – gave some reassurance to everyone working in early education settings and schools. The efforts you are making every day to keep yourself, your staff and the children in your care safe are working and reducing the risks you would otherwise face. And, round the corner, are new forms of testing that will give us all more rapid answers and greater control over if and when we need to temporarily close. PACEY will be lobbying for childcare providers as well as schools to have access to these rapid tests, so you don’t have to close for days if there is a suspected case of Covid-19 in your family or setting. This is imperative to ensuring children get the best start they deserve, working families aren’t let down, and your service has a better chance of surviving this pandemic.
Liz Bayram is Chief Executive at PACEY. You can read previous letters from Liz here.