Covid-19: New variant not likely to impact level of transmission in schools, Nolan says

Nphet member asserts State is in ‘vulnerable period’ but progress is being made

A phased reopening of schools is due to begin on Monday. File photograph: Tobias Schwarz/AFP via Getty Images

A phased reopening of schools is due to begin on Monday. File photograph: Tobias Schwarz/AFP via Getty Images

 

The more transmissible B117 variant, which is now the State’s dominant Covid-19 strain, is not likely to make a “significant difference” to the transmission levels of Covid-19 within school settings, according to the chairman of the National Public Health Emergency Team’s (Nphet) modelling group.

“We remain optimistic that the level of transmission within schools will be low now, just as it was throughout the latter part of 2020, despite the new variant, because of the efforts of school principals and teachers,” Prof Philip Nolan told Newstalk’s On the Record with Gavan Reilly on Sunday.

His comments came ahead of the beginning of the phased reopening of schools on Monday.

Prof Nolan also told the programme that the “very slow” phased reopening of schools will allow for any necessary policy changes to be made if there is a significant development of the disease.

With capacity in the State for about 10,000 additional daily Covid-19 tests, Prof Nolan said there is “plenty of capacity” in the testing system to accommodate very significant testing in a school setting if needed.

It is planned that the youngest four primary school classes will return to classrooms on Monday, as will sixth-year students. Other age groups are provisionally scheduled to return to in-person learning at phased intervals up until April 12th.

Prof Nolan said testing capacity was significantly ramped up during the peak of the third wave of Covid-19 in December and January, with about 28,000 tests conducted per day. Now, with about 16,000 to 18,000 tests being done per day, this additional capacity of about 10,000 tests per day will be used to “chase down the disease”, he said.

Prof Nolan said the public should “take stock” of having managed to reduce transmission of the virus to its current levels. He said there has been a “renewed decrease” in disease indicators over the last three to 10 days, including in hospital admissions and the Covid-19 test positivity rate.

He acknowledged that case numbers are falling by no more than 15 per cent per week, but he said the country must keep “chipping away at the level of community transmission” to allow other sectors of society to reopen.

“It is an important thing to remember that cases are still going down despite the fact that 90 per cent of the cases in this country are the B117 variant. Right across Europe we are beginning to see case numbers start to increase again. In those countries a minority of cases are the more transmissible [B117] variant,” he said.

The slow progress made in reducing case numbers is “largely down to the new variant”, Prof Nolan said, but added: “We are not stuck. We are continuing to make progress.”

The current reproduction number for the virus stands at 0.7 to 0.9, but this would probably be closer to 0.5 to 0.6 if the B117 variant was not on the island, he said.

The country is in a “vulnerable period” where a hasty reopening of society would spell a “really significant fourth wave of the disease”, he said.

“Quite rightly the Government has been exceptionally cautious now not to trigger something that will have the disease back out of control again,” he added.

Relaxing restrictions

On the same programme, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar defended the Government’s decision not to set specific metrics for when Covid-19 restrictions could be relaxed because such targets could be “fairly arbitrary”.

“I’ve come to accept the advice of Nphet and the experts on this and they say setting specific metrics is unwise, and you need to take into account a number of factors.” Covid-19 variants, the number of cases and the state of the hospitals would all be monitored when taking decisions in this regard, he said.

“There is so much we don’t know about the virus, about how it’s changing, about its transmissibility.

“Any target you’re going to pick will be fairly arbitrary within certain bands, and that doesn’t make sense in our view.”

He said Covid-19 cases were dropping “considerably” and the positivity rate had dipped below 4 per cent on Saturday for the first time since mid-December. He said: “It does seem we’re going in the right direction slower than we would have liked, but that’s probably to do with the fact that B117 is so much more transmissible.”

Asked about the possible introduction of “green passes” that might allow vaccinated people to avail of certain reopened services, as is being done in Israel, which has an advanced vaccination programme, Mr Varadkar cautioned that Israel was still seeing high case loads despite very strict border controls and high levels of vaccination. “It does show you how difficult this virus is to control once it’s become endemic and once it’s become prevalent in your society.”

He said there “could be” a system of green passes introduced in the State. “By could, I mean could, and not will, and that is something we will have to examine when we learn more about Israel, as to whether it’s worked.”

“You’d want to have a critical mass of the population vaccinated before you even considered those kind of measures,” he said, adding that the State will reach such a point from some time in June when about half the population will have had at least one dose of the vaccine.

Larger State

Mr Varadkar said that there was already, and would continue to be, a larger State prompted by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, he said his preference was that this would be paid for through economic growth, rather than increased taxation.

He said that with vaccines, antigen testing, better treatments and a “robust” test, trace and isolate system, alongside controls on international travel, “we can get back to a life more normal this summer and hopefully a very normal life sometime next year”.

A further 13 deaths from and 738 new cases of Covid-19 were reported by Nphet on Saturday.

The State’s seven-day incidence rate per 100,000 people has dropped to 97.3, the first time it has fallen below 100 since December 22nd. The 14-day incidence rate per 100,000 is 215.8.

On RTÉ’s The Week in Politics, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney defended the State’s travel and quarantine system, but conceded that if there had been confusion around messaging “the Government has to put its hand up and say we have to do better”. Sinn Féin’s health spokeswoman Louise O’Reilly said the current plan to enforce quarantine at home for arrivals into the State “is a nonsense”.