Education unions have urged the Government to consider reintroducing extra safety measures in schools as an expert warned about the level of coronavirus circulating among secondary pupils.
The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that around one in 15 children in school years 7 to 11 in England are estimated to have had Covid-19 in the week to October 2 – the highest positivity rate for any age group.
Professor Calum Semple, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), which advises the Government, said there is a risk children in that age group could reach herd immunity through infection rather than vaccination.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There is a risk of that and it’s not a good way to get to herd immunity.
“Commentators would usually say it’s ridiculous to aim for herd immunity using natural wild-type infection because that brings with it disease and damage to children both from acute disease and potentially long Covid.”
He said there is “no pretence that this is a deliberate attempt to get herd immunity – that would also be ridiculous”.
He suggested “some flexibility would be great” for parents in England to be able to take children to vaccination centres.
Most children in England aged 12-15 are currently being offered one dose of the Pfizer vaccine by immunisation teams at schools.
Prof Semple said the uptake so far in this age group has been “really encouraging”, but added: “I’m sure it will take time for confidence to build among many parents.”
His comments come as five education unions wrote to Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi urging him to look at bringing back stronger safety measures for schools.
The GMB union, Unite, Unison, National Education Union (NEU) and NASUWT teaching union said they are also writing to local authorities and directors of public health asking them to consider measures in their local areas.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: “We are concerned that the Government is standing by while Covid cases surge across schools.
“It is evident that more needs to be done, and sooner rather than later, to prevent further massive disruption to children’s education, caused either by children contracting Covid-19 or Covid-related staff absence.”
Jim Kennedy, Unite national officer for education, called on Mr Zahawi to “reset the safety agenda for schools” and argued that with winter approaching “the whole range of measures to keep school children safe needs to be deployed – the rising level of infections in schools demand it”.
The NASUWT said schools need more support with onsite testing “rather than relying on home testing, which is less effective” and called on the Government to consider reinstating the requirement for pupils who are contacts of a positive case to self-isolate.
Avril Chambers, GMB national officer, said the latest figures show “it is clear further mitigation measures are needed immediately” in order to avoid further disruption to schooling.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The protective measures in place in schools strike a balance between managing transmission risk – with enhanced ventilation, regular Covid testing and vaccinations of older students and staff – and reducing disruption to education by removing the need for close contacts in bubbles to self-isolate and for face coverings to be worn.
“Our guidance is clear that schools should only introduce additional measures if advised by local Directors of Public Health in response to high case rates within the school, and those measures should be temporary and carefully balance public health concerns with the need to prioritise face-to-face education.”