Schools plead for Indian variant data to be made public

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Concerned teachers and school leaders are pleading with the government to come clean on just how prevalent the Indian Covid-19 variant of concern is in schools.

At the time of writing there is still no official data available about the spread of the B.1.617.2 variant among school-age children.

A report in The Observer over the weekend claimed that Downing Street put pressure on Public Health England (PHE) to hold back data on the spread of the Indian variant in schools. It claims that an early draft of a PHE report earlier this month included a page of data on the spread in schools, which was subsequently removed (Cadwalladr, 2021).

The latest official update shows that as of May 19, there are now 3,424 cases of the B.1.617.2 coronavirus variant of concern, known as the Indian variant in the UK. This is an increase of 2,111 since May 12 and includes 3,245 cases in England and 136 in Scotland (PHE, 2021a).

The Observer claims that up until May 12, 164 cases of the new variant had been linked to schools.

The PHE says that cases of the variant are still predominantly affecting the North West of England – particularly Bolton and Blackburn – as well as London. However, a statement on May 20 said that we are “seeing clusters of cases across the country”.

A statement (PHE, 2021b), added: “There is evidence that VOC-21APR-02 (Indian variant) is growing rapidly and may be more transmissible than VOC-20DEC-01, the ‘Kent variant’ that is currently dominant in the UK. Experts at PHE are monitoring the situation closely.”

It comes as the latest figures for schools show that attendance for primary pupils was 94 per cent on May 20 (down from 95 per cent on May 12) and for secondary pupils was 87 per cent (down from 89 per cent).

Of the pupils absent, 18,000 had a suspected case of Covid (0.2 per cent of pupils on roll), 4,000 had a confirmed case (less then 0.1 per cent), and 82,000 were self-isolating due to a potential Covid contact (DfE, 2021).

School leaders are concerned. Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “Reports that the government is deliberately withholding data on the spread of the Indian variant in schools are extremely concerning. It is important that we have complete transparency when it comes to transmission data in schools so that the right measures can be put in place. We urge the government to publish the data it holds without any further delay.”

Teaching union NASUWT has also called for PHE to publish “all data it has on the growth and spread of the B.1.617.2 variant in schools”.

General secretary Dr Patrick Roach said: “The latest data that has been released shows the variant becoming dominant in more regions of England and more transmissible than the previous ‘Kent variant’.

“Because of this deeply concerning situation safety measures in schools are vitally important and schools and colleges must do everything they can to make sure all essential and appropriate mitigations are in place.

“Where vital information regarding the spread in schools of variants is not being shared, school and college risk assessments will not be worth the paper they are printed on and pupils and staff will potentially be placed at unnecessary risk.

“Ministers need to answer whether this information will be shared immediately with local employers and school workforce unions and if not, why not.”

The National Education Union, meanwhile, has called on the government to support secondary schools in the areas affected by the Indian variant to carry out lateral flow tests on all secondary children in the week after the upcoming half-term. Joint general secretary Kevin Courtney added: “This week’s small fall in school attendance continues the pattern of the half-term. We are worried that the national figures obscure significant disruption to schools in a handful of hotspots such as Bolton and Blackburn-with-Darwen.”

Commenting on the latest attendance figures, Mr Whiteman added: “It is still far too soon to be complacent about lifting Covid restrictions or relaxing safety measures in schools. Schools need transparency about the levels of infection around the country so they can make sure they have the right measures in place for their local area.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that concerns had been raised further after the government advised people not to travel into and out of eight areas hardest hit by the new variant (Bedford, Blackburn, Bolton, Burnley, Kirklees, Leicester, North Tyneside and the London borough of Hounslow). However, this advice was removed on Tuesday (May 25) after a public outcry.

The latest regional case data (last updated May 25) shows 1,298 positive cases of Covid-19 in Bolton during the previous seven days, the most of any place in the UK. Next in the list were Glasgow City with 845 infections, Kirklees (437) and Blackburn (420) (PHE, 2021c)

Mr Barton said: “While Covid-related pupil absence is said to remain low overall, we are increasingly concerned about the dearth of public health information about the impact of the Indian Covid variant in schools and colleges. Despite repeated requests for data on its incidence in education settings, this has not been forthcoming from the government.

“The government has to understand that many members of staff in schools and colleges are either unvaccinated or have not yet received a second vaccination, while the vast majority of students are not vaccinated at all.

The latest evidence from PHE (2021d) shows that both the Pfizer and the AstraZeneca vaccines were effective against the Indian variant after two doses. Pfizer is 88 per cent effective (compared to 93 per cent against the Kent variant), while AstraZeneca is 60 per cent effective (compared to 66 per cent).

However, after just one dose, both vaccines are only around 33 per cent effective (compared to around 50 per cent against the Kent variant).

Mr Barton added: “It is essential that there is full transparency about the impact of the new variant in schools and colleges so that the level of risk is clear and any necessary protective measures can be taken.”

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