HSE plays down concerns about change to Covid-19 checks on children

Teachers fear parents will ‘drop their guard’ in wake of changes to close contact guidance

Teachers are worried about the pace of the changes, given the high numbers of cases among schoolchildren. Photograph: iStock

Teachers are worried about the pace of the changes, given the high numbers of cases among schoolchildren. Photograph: iStock

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Health chiefs have sought to reassure parents and schools about changes in Covid-19 health measures for children amid confusion about the changes and concerns about high case numbers in schools.

The Health Service Executive’s chief clinical officer, Dr Colm Henry, said that primary school children no longer having to restrict movements or be tested if they are close contacts of a Covid case was a “big change” and a “significant signal” but it “doesn’t represent an undoing of some core public health protections”.

Teachers’ groups expressed concern the change – coming into effect on Monday – would confuse parents where children aged 12 and younger would still be required to restrict their movements, and be contact-traced and tested, if they were close contacts through a household rather than through a school.

There are fears that the relaxation of the measures for unvaccinated children will lead to families taking a more relaxed approach to the virus generally and result in more cases in schools.

“We are worried that parents will think that this is a sign that we can drop our guard,” said John Boyle, general secretary of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation.

Teachers were worried about the pace of the changes, given the high numbers of cases among schoolchildren, when waiting until the midterm break next month might have been more prudent, he said.

Mr Boyle said that the Departments of Health and Education had “abjectly failed” to communicate the changes clearly to families of 600,000 primary schoolchildren.

Premature move

Brian O’Doherty, president of the Irish Primary Principals’ Network, said school principals were anxious that the relaxation of measures was premature given the high number of cases.

He called for a “renewed focus” on informing parents of the importance of keeping children who were showing Covid symptoms at home and consistency in the public messages around what symptoms to watch for.

Hospital Report

Confirmed cases in hospital Confirmed cases in ICU
459 74

Christine Loscher, a professor of immunology at Dublin City University, said that removing “fundamental tools” such as contact-tracing and testing for the only unvaccinated group in the country too early was “a bad idea”.

“Without contact-tracing and testing, we are actually not going to even know whether the numbers of asymptomatic children are increasing,” she said.

Guidance had moved “to the other extreme” when a shorter restriction period for asymptomatic kids and more testing could have avoided exposing others to the virus, she said.

Under Department of Education guidance, children who had begun 10-day self-isolation as a close contact can return to school on Monday if they do not have symptoms.

The State’s chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan, defended the change, saying it was “the right time” to ease measures given that schools were “a low-risk setting”.

He said it was “very reassuring” to see the positivity rate decrease from 16 per cent to 5 per cent despite a significant increase in the numbers of children being tested in recent weeks.

Dr Henry said that the Covid-19 restrictions of having to stay at home for up to 14 days as a close contact were “much more severe” than the impact of Covid itself on children.

Not ‘major driver’

Serious Covid illness among children was very rare, child-to-child transmission was “not a major driver of infection” and the classroom was “not an incubator of disease”, he said.

He rejected the view that the measures would knowingly allow unmitigated spread in schools and that the HSE would continue to look at symptomatic cases and patterns in schools.

“The idea that we are letting it rip through children and wilfully exposing them doesn’t fairly represent the control measures that have been put in place in schools,” he said

Meanwhile, organ transport recipients and cancer patients will be among the first people to receive third Covid-19 vaccine doses this week in the next phase of the vaccination programme.

Dr Henry said that the first recipients would be identified through the hospitals and contacted this week, with jabs being administered in vaccination centres from the end of the week.

People aged 80 and over in the community and people aged 65 and over in nursing homes would start receiving their third doses the following week, he said.

A further 1,459 confirmed cases of Covid-19 were reported in the State on Sunday afternoon. As of 8am on Sunday, 296 coronavirus patients were hospitalised, of which 65 were in ICU.

In Northern Ireland, the deaths of a further six patients who had previously tested positive for Covid-19 were notified, along with 1,020 more cases of the virus.

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