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Philip Nolan: Risk of keeping asymptomatic children in school 'remains low'

Changes to contact tracing rules come into effect on Monday.

Professor Philip Nolan
Professor Philip Nolan
Image: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

PROFESSOR PHILIP NOLAN has said that the risks of children transmitting Covid-19 in school settings is very low when compared to the risks of transmission in household settings. 

Speaking on RTÉ’s News at One, the chair of NPHET’s epidemiological modelling advisory group said that the value of testing asymptomatic children in school is low because “very few cases” are detected, while the risks of allowing asymptomatic children to stay in school also remains low when compared to a household setting. 

“Typically, a case in a school might infect somewhere between 2% and 5% of its close contacts, whereas the same case in a household setting is typically infecting somewhere between 30% and 50% of its unvaccinated close contacts,” he said. 

“From our perspective, the experience of the first three weeks is, as predicted, and that gives us assurance that the risks of allowing asymptomatic children to continue their schooling are very low and the benefits of uninterrupted schooling are quite significant,” he added.

As per the new guidance from the Department of Health, children who are a Covid-19 close contact in primary school will no longer have to restrict their movements if they do not have symptoms.

The testing of asymptomatic close contacts in childcare facilities and primary education will be discontinued, as well as automatic contact tracing for all close contacts.

Children aged 12 and under in childcare, educational or special education settings who are asymptomatic will no longer be required to restrict movements, unless indicated by the local public health team.

However, they will still have to restrict their movements and have a Covid-19 test if they are a close contact from a household setting.

Children with Covid-19 symptoms should still self-isolate and not attend school or socialise until 48 hours after they are symptom free.

Nolan said that most of the transmissions in children and in schools are occurring from symptomatic children, and that the benefits of uninterrupted schooling for asymptomatic children are “quite significant”.

“The vast majority of transmissions occur when people spend quite a bit of time quite close to each other, and that kind of thing happens much more in the home or in a residential setting than it does in the school setting,” he said.

“In a household setting, if a child is exposed to this virus, its much more likely that they will have become infected, so it’s prudent when the exposure occurs in the household setting to restrict movements and seek a test.”

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Earlier this week, unions and teaching professionals reacted with anger at the announcement of the new guidance. 

General Secretary of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) John Boyle said he was “absolutely flabbergasted” by the decision, and said the government were removing a “safety net” for schools with the move. 

“Families in Ireland are going to hear this Friday and Saturday that their child is going to have to restrict their movements for 10 days, and then on Monday a child in the exact same situation is going to be told that they can go to school,” Boyle said. 

But Nolan said NPHET can reassure people from examining the data and listening to the experience of public health colleagues on the ground “who are investigating cases and outbreaks telling us that it is really is of minimal benefit to exclude asymptomatic children from school.”

Nolan also spoke about a “level of anxiety” amongst people due to the “significant levels of disease” still spreading in communities, and said it was important to continue the basic measures of protection against Covid.

“I do think we also need to be clear about the risks and to calibrate the risks and to realise that many of the activities of daily life, particularly for those of us who are vaccinated, we can resume with the risk remaining relatively low.”

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Jane Moore

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