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Chief medical officer defends ‘more targeted' contact tracing in schools

The Public Health Agency took over the tracking of contacts of positive Covid-19 cases in recent weeks as new guidance took effect
Rebecca Black, PA

The chief medical officer has defended a “more targeted” approach to contact tracing in schools.

The Public Health Agency took over the tracking of contacts of positive Covid-19 cases in recent weeks as new guidance took effect.

Previously large numbers of children and young people were finding themselves having to miss school to self-isolate after being identified as a contact.

Sir Michael McBride told the Stormont education committee that keeping children in school is a “key priority”.

He said that in previous waves of the pandemic this has not been possible, adding it had been “very damaging” to children both in terms of mental health and education.

“While children and young people have a relatively low risk of severe disease and hospitalisation, they are at particularly high risk of wider long term socio-economic and well-being harm,” he told MLAs.

“We must continue to strike a balance between safeguarding children’s education and well-being, and measures to contain Covid in the community.

“Having examined all the evidence, I am confident as chief medical officer that now is the right time to introduce a more targeted approach to the identification of close contacts and to strike that balance.”

He said he understood concerns being expressed by children, parents and school staff and welcomed the opportunity to publicly address these.

Dr McBride said that all are agreed that schools are the best place for young people, and while previous school closures were “absolutely necessary to reduce the growth of the pandemic”, he added: “This is no longer the case.”

He described schools as “safe for both children and staff”, adding that studies from earlier in the pandemic in England indicated that the vast majority (98%) of the children identified as close contacts of cases did not go on to develop Covid-19.

“There is a body of consistent evidence that now supports the move for a more targeted approach to the identification of close contacts as the correct and proportionate approach at this stage in the pandemic,” he said.

Dr McBride also told MLAs that in addition there is a “highly effective” vaccine, as well as “clear evidence that Covid rarely results in serious illness or hospitalisation and even less commonly death”.

He said emerging studies have also indicated that children are at low risk of developing long Covid.

“It’s my professional opinion, shared by chief medical officers across the UK, that very few if any children or teenagers will come to long-term harm from Covid solely due to attending school,” he said.

“I think we have to set that against the almost certainty of long-term harm to children and young people from not attending school.”

Meanwhile, responding to a question from committee chairman Chris Lyttle, he said an informed consent leaflet is being prepared for parents of 12-15 year-olds around the Covid-19 vaccine, adding the jab is expected to be rolled out to that cohort at the end of September or start of October.

Sinn Féin MLA Pat Sheehan and the SDLP's Daniel McCrossan said they felt the chief medical officer appeared to have received different reports from school leaders than they had.

Mr Sheehan claimed the reports were "completely at odds" from what he had heard in meetings.

"I'm getting the same story from them all, it puzzles me that the chief medical officer would be getting a different story, it's not just school principals, it's the trade unions and others who are giving us a similar picture and it doesn't marry in with what the CMO was saying this morning," he said.

Mr McCrossan added: "I know most members of this committee have been hearing very difficult stories from schools and certainly they aren't reflected in what was reported to us during that session."

Education Minister Michelle McIlveen also appeared before the committee this morning.

She described the latest guidance for schools as designed to “allow school leaders to lead”, moving “away from being prescriptive to being as permissive as public health advice permits”.

The minister said her department will be submitting a bid for capital funding for carbon dioxide monitors for schools.

She said localised issues may emerged, and if measures are required at a regional level, there are “escalation measures” from last year which can be reinstated.

“I remain concerned about the impact of the pandemic on our children and young people however I am confident that the more targeted approach to contact tracing that has been agreed would result in fewer pupils having to self-isolate unnecessarily,” she said.

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