Schoolchildren who are close contacts of Covid-19 cases would no longer have to self-isolate if they showed no symptoms, under changes being considered by health officials.
With the testing system coming under extreme pressure as 14,000 children have been deemed close contacts of cases, public health specialists are pressing for a relaxation of rules that require them to stay home for at least 10 days.
The change would apply to asymptomatic children who are not vaccinated.
Internal documents drawn up for the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) over the summer warn the current mass testing regime has negative effects that must be balanced out as vaccines reduce harm. These include “medicalising daily life in ways that may have significant social consequences”, citing the exclusion of children from school as an example.
Vaccinated children are already exempt from the requirement to restrict their movements if they become a close contact, but only children aged 12 and over can be immunised.
Consideration is also being given to testing children earlier in the self-isolation period so they could return to the classroom earlier. Longer restriction periods would continue in situations of greater risk, such as some forms of special education.
No immediate decision
It is unlikely a decision will be made immediately, as no meeting of Nphet is scheduled for this week. The rules applying to testing and isolation of schoolchildren date from early in the pandemic and do not take account of widespread vaccination.
The requirement for close contacts to stay at home was designed to minimise transmission of the disease by children to potentially vulnerable adults at home. This is less of a threat now that 90 per cent of the adult population are fully vaccinated.
The rules were also drawn up at a time when the effect of Covid-19 on children was unclear. Since then, it has become apparent that children rarely suffer serious illness. Under current rules, a child who is a close contact, does not have symptoms and is not fully vaccinated has to quarantine for 14 days.
They can stop restricting their movement after 10 days if they get a negative PCR test.
Any child with symptoms would still have to quarantine.
A discussion paper drawn up for Nphet outlines that planning to move away from “open access or mass scale” testing is important as harm declines.
Among the negative effects cited are the risk of “medicalising daily life in ways that may have significant social consequences (for example exclusion of children from school and associated services when they have no symptoms or minor respiratory symptoms)”. It notes that a change of approach is not without risks, including potentially missing resurgence until people become symptomatic.
On Tuesday, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly acknowledged the "big imposition" of isolation requirements, noting public health teams were keeping testing protocols under review. "If they were to advise me and advise government on shortening, then that's something we can look at."
Labour’s education spokesman, Aodhán Ó Riordáin, said safe ways to revise the system should be considered. He said schools were being forced to make their own decisions on exclusions.
“Principals are telling me there’s a communication vacuum because the system is overloaded and they can’t get through to anyone, and they’re having to make their own calls on sending a class home if there’s a case of Covid.”
Health sources indicated current testing volumes were challenging, and quickly increasing clinical resources to deal with the demand was difficult.
A spokesman for the Department of Education said the HSE carried out risk assessments when a case was confirmed, and that support was provided to schools, including a dedicated helpline for principals.