Schools have triggered three times more Covid outbreaks than hospitals since October, official figures show as Boris Johnson today prepared to shut all classrooms until next month.
Public Health England reports reveal 26 per cent of investigated Covid infection clusters — or 2,722 out of 10,000 — were linked to nurseries, primaries, secondaries and universities over the 12 weeks to the end of December. For comparison, only eight per cent — or 816 — were traced back to hospitals over the same time period.
When schools were closed in the fourth week of December for Christmas, however, only 10 per cent of clusters were linked to academic institutions. This is likely because it can take a week for someone who is infected to develop symptoms.
The figures suggest schools — which remained open under November’s lockdown — may fuel England’s spiralling infection rate, which has almost trebled in a month because of the rapid spread of a highly-infectious mutation.
They raise questions over why ministers sat on their hands instead of closing schools, when they were prepared to shut down the economically-crippled hospitality sector, despite pubs and restaurants being blamed for fewer than 5 per cent of Covid outbreaks investigated by PHE.
PHE chiefs define Covid outbreaks, or ‘acute respiratory incidents’ (ARIs), as situations where at least two cases of the virus within seven days of each other are traced to the ‘same setting’. This means one outbreak in a setting like a prison may, in reality, be linked to more than 500 infections with the virus, while 50 clusters in schools may be traced back to only 100 cases. Officials do not reveal the full breakdown of cases.
Only 800 clusters across England were reported in PHE’s surveillance study this week, which is likely to be a vast underestimate of the true number because there are roughly 40,000 new infections every day across the UK. Not every outbreak will have been recorded, if health bosses can’t link cases back to one setting.
It comes as the Prime Minister prepares to address the nation in a press conference at 8pm tonight, after he put England on notice to face tougher restrictions in the coming days.
Ministers ordered primary school children across the country, except in London, to return to the classroom today, but have delayed the return of secondary school pupils until next week. There are fears that this timetable will be scrapped in the face of rocketing coronavirus cases and hospital admissions.
Britain has recorded more than 50,000 new Covid-19 infections every day for the past week, with health bosses today declaring the highest-ever daily figure of 58,784. Department of Health bosses also announced 407 more deaths.
Schools have been behind 26.5 per cent – or 2,722 out of 10,000 – outbreaks of Covid-19 since October, prompting warnings they could be the driving force behind England’s second wave. An outbreak is defined as when two or more cases of coronavirus are linked to the same setting
Infection rates are also high among 10 to 19 year olds, Public Health England data reveals, although this fell over the holidays
Covid-19 clusters linked to schools dropped during the holidays (Week 52 on the graph which is from December 22 to 29). But some outbreaks were still linked to educational institutions over this time because it can take a week for symptoms to appear
The number of Covid-19 clusters in hospitals is lower than that reported in schools, Public Health England data shows
WHERE WERE COVID-19 OUTBREAKS SINCE OCTOBER?
% of total
The above are the number of Covid-19 outbreaks between weeks 40 and 52 (October to the end of December), as reported by Public Health England.
An outbreak is when two or more cases are linked to a particular setting
Combining data from PHE reports on infections over the past three months reveals only care homes — where residents are more vulnerable to the virus — accounted for a higher number of outbreaks than schools.
As much as 32.5 per cent of clusters — or 3,326 — were traced back to homes.
Workplaces, including offices and factories, accounted for the third highest number of clusters at 17.4 per cent, or 1,782 cases.
Prisons had the lowest number of the seven settings included in PHE’s analysis at 0.4 per cent.
Other settings made up 13.6 per cent of outbreaks. PHE does not explain what settings count as ‘other’.
A spokesman for PHE said a ‘significant number’ of the Covid outbreaks they report turn out not to be outbreaks after they are investigated. But they could not put a number on how many fall into each category.
They added that they did not recommend comparing the number of Covid outbreaks by settings because the likelihood of each reporting them varies.
Schools are more likely to panic and report an outbreak when there isn’t one, they said, while other settings are less likely to take the same approach.
‘All suspected outbreaks are further investigated by the Health Protection Teams (HPTs) in liaison with local partners and a significant proportion do not meet the criteria of a confirmed outbreak,’ they added.
Ministers have faced a difficult juggling act over whether to keep schools open and pupils behind their desks.
On the one hand, scientists say ordering heads to bolt their doors is bound to stifle the spread of the virus in the community — because it will cut contact between people.
It will also protect teachers from becoming infected with the virus and, if they are in a higher risk category, potentially being hospitalised by the symptoms.
But experts have also warned shutting schools again would seriously damage the grades and life chances of children.
Children also have a ‘tiny’ risk of dying or becoming seriously ill if they catch the virus, meaning parents are not putting them at risk if they send them back to the classroom.
Analysis by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found those under 15 have a one-in-3.5million risk of dying from Covid, and are more likely to be struck by lightening.
Professor Lawrence Young, an expert in viral infections at Warwick Medical School, told MailOnline it may make more sense for ministers to close schools to drive down the transmission rate.
He said: ‘People are very confused about the impact of the different tiers, and the debacle around schools, and I think that alongside the mounting impact of infections we’re seeing does make you wonder whether what may be better would be a national lockdown for a month.
‘The big worry at the moment is the mounting number of cases. We know that’s going to translate in 10 to 14 days into more hospitalisations.
‘It’s a perfect storm at the moment with the new variant which is clearly more infectious, and with the pressure on hospitals and the NHS.’
But Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious disease expert at the University of East Anglia, said he was ‘not convinced’ closing schools would actually drive down infections — unless it was done alongside other harsher measures.
‘It will slow the increase, but I don’t know if it will be good enough to stop it,’ he told MailOnline. ‘Yes, it will have a benefit but by itself without the vaccine it’s unlikely to be sufficient to actually suppress the virus.’
He said he was concerned children would still meet up if schools were closed, making the restrictions ineffective at stopping the spread of the virus while damaging their education.
‘If they’re still meeting up in each other’s houses or behind their parents backs that will certainly undermine any benefit,’ Professor Hunter said.
‘It’s the number you meet, whether it’s indoors or outdoors, how close and how long you spend with them and so on.’
He added data from the US suggested closing schools had a low impact there because youngsters continued to meet in public places.
Above are the number of Covid-19 outbreaks in care homes, left, and in the workplace, right, since July. Care homes accounted for the most outbreaks followed by schools and then workplaces
Covid-19 outbreaks as recorded in prisons, left, and restaurants and pubs, right. Ministers didn’t close schools when they accounted for 26 per cent of all outbreaks, but closed pubs when they accounted for barely two per cent
The Government kept schools open during the November lockdown but experts fear this led to an increase in the number of cases reported in the country before the shutdown was over.
Department of Health data shows they began rising again on November 30, when cases rose from an average of 14,502 to 14,652. This suggests lockdown measures failed to suppress the virus because it can take up to a week for someone who is infected to develop symptoms and then get tested.
Boris Johnson will address the nation at 8pm tonight. He is pictured above today on a visit to a hospital in London
It comes after primary schools were ordered to welcome back students for the spring term today, despite calls from all of Britain’s teaching unions for classroom teaching to be ‘paused’ until staff are vaccinated.
In a joint statement the leaders of the GMB, NAHT, NASUWT, NEU, UNISON and Unite unions have said they want ‘an immediate nationwide move to remote education for all pupils in primary, secondary and special schools and colleges’.
On a visit to a London hospital to see the rollout of the new Oxford University/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine, Mr Johnson hinted that secondaries may shut for longer when closures are reviewed before January 18 – and insisted the risk to teachers from Covid was no greater than to anyone else working during the pandemic.
‘We will have to look very hard at what we do with secondary schools later in the month. Closing primary schools is, for all of us, a last resort. That’s why we are looking at everything else we can possibly do to avoid that. I would stress schools are safe and the risk to kids is very, very small’, he said.
The Prime Minister added: ‘The risk to teachers, and of course we will do everything we can to protect teachers, but the risk to teachers is no greater than it is to anyone else. The reasons for wanting to keep schools open I think are very, very powerful.’
Hours later it emerged that Mr Johnson is set to unveil a brutal new national lockdown tonight in a desperate bid to keep the mutant coronavirus at bay while vaccines are rolled out.
All schools in London are closed today along with the majority of Covid-19 hotspots in Essex, Kent, East Sussex, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire after a Department for Education diktat last week. But headteachers told to remain open in areas such as in Surrey, Gloucestershire, Newcastle, Norfolk, Liverpool, County Durham, West Sussex, Sheffield, Wolverhampton, Leeds and Lancashire have shut down anyway.
There is growing rumours that the Government will soon cave in and close all schools in yet another embarrassing U-turn for Education Secretary Gavin Williamson as the NEU union said that 6,000 primary schools still open today have been told formally by staff that it is ‘unsafe’ to come into work, leaving parents with an anxious wait to hear if their school will be next to shut.
Closing schools will consign millions of children to ‘sub-standard’ online learning experts say can ‘set back’ children years, especially those from working class families while Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman has warned schools not to ‘furlough’ children by shutting down again.
Parents took to social media this morning describing their anxiety at trying to care for their children at home at the 11th hour while trying to hold down a full time job with many slamming the decision by schools to close unilaterally as ‘staggering’.
Northfield St Nicholas Primary Academy in Lowestoft, Suffolk, announced it was closing on Facebook with parent Rebecca Kane venting: ‘Nice finding this out via a friend at 8.30pm…. no email or text to let us know. CAN’T say I’m surprised.’
Other parents in all parts of the country said they are fearful for their children because for many homeschooling in the first lockdown last year amounted to ‘here do your times tables’ and ‘no actual teaching’.