Government experts drawing up plans to vaccinate secondary pupils to curb spread of new Covid strain

Government scientists are drawing up plans to vaccinate secondary school pupils in England in a bid to curb the spread of the new Covid strain, according to reports.

Ministers have vowed the keep schools open after the Christmas break, saying children’s learning was suffering due to the impact of Covid-19.

But experts are growing concerned that the new variant may infect children more effectively than the earlier strain.

Government scientists have also been told that keeping secondary schools open during the recent national lockdown helped drive the spread of the new variant in badly hit areas such as Kent and London.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation – the UK’s vaccine authority which is responsible for drawing-up the priority lists for the Covid jab – has now been asked to model plans for immunisation in secondary schools, according to the i.

The early-stage plans were discussed at a recent meeting of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), it adds.

The reports come as ministers today vowed to push-on with plans for a mass testing roll-out in schools in January, something which unions have slammed as ‘undeliverable’.

Ministers held crunch talks with educators on Friday over the plans, but union chiefs say headteachers have ‘not been reassured that schools will receive the support we believe they need and deserve’.

Meanwhile, Matt Hancock last night fuelled speculation over school closures in Tier 4 areas in the south east, saying he would ‘not to rule anything out’.

It comes as in other coronavirus news:

  • Germany, France, Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Austria suspended travel from Britain, trying to protect themselves from the new strain;
  • France also banned British freight lorries, adding to the chaos at Channel ports;
  • Mr Hancock refused to rule out the closure of schools, which are already facing delays to next term;
  • Tory sources confirmed Tier Four travel curbs mean the Prime Minister will spend Christmas in Downing Street, rather than his country retreat Chequers; In a rare bright spot, the number vaccinated hit around 500,000 last night;
  • Officials voiced hopes that the Oxford jab could be approved this week; Mr Hancock condemned ‘totally irresponsible’ travellers who piled on to trains out of London on Saturday night before Tier Four came in;
  • British Transport Police stepped up patrols to stop residents leaving London and South East;
  • Scottish police doubled patrols along the border after Nicola Sturgeon imposed a ban on arrivals from England;
  • Business leaders called for more support, amid warnings that tens of thousands of jobs could go;
  • Lockdown-busting scientist Neil Ferguson has been quietly reinstated as a Government adviser and was involved in the Christmas shutdown decision;
  • A YouGov poll found 67 per cent back the Christmas curbs but 61 per cent think the Government has handled the situation badly;
  • Labour’s Keir Starmer called on Mr Johnson to apologise for ‘indecision and weak leadership’ over Christmas rules;
  • Wales went into lockdown for the third time, meaning 21million UK residents are now under the toughest restrictions. 
Government scientists are drawing up plans to vaccinate secondary school pupils (pictured: Library image) in England in a bid to curb the spread of the new Covid strain, according to reports.

Government scientists are drawing up plans to vaccinate secondary school pupils (pictured: Library image) in England in a bid to curb the spread of the new Covid strain, according to reports.

Government scientists are drawing up plans to vaccinate secondary school pupils (pictured: Library image) in England in a bid to curb the spread of the new Covid strain, according to reports.

In a bid to combat the spread of the new strain, the UK's vaccines (pictured: Carol Patrick receives her Covid-19 jab in Bodmin) authority has now been asked to outline modelling requirements on immunisation in schools, according to the i

In a bid to combat the spread of the new strain, the UK's vaccines (pictured: Carol Patrick receives her Covid-19 jab in Bodmin) authority has now been asked to outline modelling requirements on immunisation in schools, according to the i

In a bid to combat the spread of the new strain, the UK’s vaccines (pictured: Carol Patrick receives her Covid-19 jab in Bodmin) authority has now been asked to outline modelling requirements on immunisation in schools, according to the i

It comes as Matt Hancock (pictured) last night refused to rule out keeping schools closed after the holiday in the parts of England under the toughest restrictions

It comes as Matt Hancock (pictured) last night refused to rule out keeping schools closed after the holiday in the parts of England under the toughest restrictions

It comes as Matt Hancock (pictured) last night refused to rule out keeping schools closed after the holiday in the parts of England under the toughest restrictions

Scotland’s Education Secretary insists it’s ‘safe’ for children and teachers in schools

Scotland’s Education Secretary John Swinney has insisted it is ‘safe’ for children and teachers to be in school this week – despite the Scottish Government moving classes for most youngsters online in January.

The school Christmas break is being extended to January 11 for the majority of pupils, with remote learning then being in place until January 18 at the earliest.

Mr Swinney said he would ‘want to stick’ to schools returning to face-to-face learning after that.

But Larry Flanagan, the general secretary of the EIS teaching union, said that would depend on the prevalence of coronavirus in communities across Scotland.

The extension of the school break and the move to remote learning for all but vulnerable youngsters and the children of key workers was announced by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon as part of the response to a new, faster-spreading strain of Covid-19.

Those measures will see all of mainland Scotland put under the toughest coronavirus restrictions from Saturday, December 26

Mr Swinney told BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme that ministers were taking ‘a strategic approach in the country to try to minimise movement so we maximise our chances of avoiding further spread of the virus’.

His comments came as Scotland’s Children’s Commission Bruce Adamson said he remained ‘deeply concerned’ that online learning can be ‘inconsistent’ across the country, with a lack of national guidance and support from Scottish Government.

He added: ‘Ministers continue to have the ultimate responsibility to ensure children’s rights to education and mental and physical health are realised.’

Mr Swinney said keeping schools open for children had been the Government’s ‘highest priority’ since classes resumed in August.

However Dr Patrick Roach, General Secretary of the NASUWT today criticised the approach.

He said: ‘The level of threat from Covid has now increased significantly and this is reflected in the decision made by the First Minister at the weekend to impose new restrictions on the whole population.

‘In this context we believe there is no justification for keeping schools open this week when remote learning could be introduced to keep pupils and school staff safe, while maintaining learning.

‘Moving to remote learning could help to protect life and health, which surely should be the first priority at the time of increased threat to us all.

‘This determination to keep schools open at all costs is reckless.’

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Plans to model a mass vaccination programme in secondary schools follow  the announcement of last week’s mass testing scheme in schools and colleges, along with the staggered return of students, after Christmas.

From January 4, staff in secondary schools will have access to weekly rapid lateral flow tests.

Students and staff will be eligible for daily testing for seven days if identified as a close contact of someone who has tested positive for Covid-19.

Primary schools are expected to follow the testing regime from April. 

Up to 11 million lateral flow tests will be available to schools and colleges from January 4, providing capacity for up to 5.5 million children and young people to be tested in the new year, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said today.

The Armed Forces will be drafted into help the mass-testing effort. 

As a result, GCSE, A-level and vocational students in England will return to school as planned in the first full week of January.

Other secondary pupils will have online classes for the first week of term, before returning to school from Monday, January 11.

Primary school pupils will return as normal in January.

Meanwhile, schools in Scotland and Wales will also have a staggered return, while schools in Northern Ireland will return as usual in January.  

However, amid concern over the spread of the new Covid strain in the south-east, Mr Hancock last night fuelled speculation of a possible change to the school plans.

He refused to rule out keeping schools closed after the holiday in the parts of England under the toughest restrictions. 

Asked to guarantee if schools in Tier Four areas would remain open, the Health Secretary said: ‘I’ve learned not to rule anything out in this pandemic.’ 

Despite Mr Hancock’s comments, education chiefs today reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to keep schools open despite tougher restrictions.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education told MailOnline: ‘Our huge expansion of rapid testing will support secondary schools to stay open to all pupils as well as reduce the risk of transmission within local communities.

‘The Chief Medical Officers have been consistently clear about the importance of children being in school for their mental health, wellbeing and development.

‘As such, there are no plans for schools to close and it has rightly been a national priority for all pupils to return to school full-time.’

The spokesperson added: ‘Schools, colleges and early years settings across the country have worked tremendously hard to put protective measures in place that are helping reduce the risk of the virus being transmitted and the Department will continue to support local authorities and schools to open and remain open next term.’

Meanwhile, Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London, who is also a member of the Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats advisory group (NervTag), said experts will use the Christmas break to monitor the impact of schools on the spread of the virus. 

The epidemiologist, who quit his role as a Government adviser after breaking rules to see his married lover, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘There is a hint from the data that this variant may infect children slightly more effectively than the previous variants, so it’s very difficult to prove causality.

Meanwhile, Professor Neil Ferguson today said experts will use the Christmas break to monitor the impact of schools on the spread of the virus

Meanwhile, Professor Neil Ferguson today said experts will use the Christmas break to monitor the impact of schools on the spread of the virus

Meanwhile, Professor Neil Ferguson today said experts will use the Christmas break to monitor the impact of schools on the spread of the virus

‘I think what we’ll see in the next two weeks though, whilst schools are closed, is probably all the variants of the virus in circulation at the moment declining.

‘We’ll be tracking very carefully whether we can see differences in that rate of decline and really it’s the data which is being put together now and unfortunately over the Christmas break which is going to inform policy measures in January.

‘It’s just too early to tell. It is going to be difficult no doubt about that… but it’s too early to say precisely what additional measures might be needed.’

He added: ‘The faster we can get the vaccine into people’s arms, the quicker we’ll be able to, not go back completely to normal, but at least to be able to relax restrictions.’

When are schools reopening in the UK after Christmas? 

From January, staff in secondary schools will have access to weekly rapid lateral flow tests.

Students and staff will be eligible for daily testing for seven days if identified as a close contact of someone who has tested positive. Primary schools are expected to follow from April. 

Up to 11 million lateral flow tests will be available to schools and colleges from January 4, providing capacity for up to 5.5 million children and young people to be tested in the new year, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said.

The Armed Forces will be drafted into help the mass-testing effort.

As a result, GCSE, A-level and vocational students in England will return to school as planned in the first full week of January, while other secondary pupils will have online classes for the first week of term, before returning to school from Monday, January 11.

Primary school pupils will return as normal.

Schools in Scotland and Wales will also have a staggered return, while schools in Northern Ireland will return as usual in January. 

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At the weekend union leaders said the return of secondary schools should be delayed for two weeks to give time for infection rates to fall.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said: ‘Delaying secondary school opening until January 18 would be the right thing to do. The latest figures show that the highest rates of infection are now among secondary schoolchildren.’

But Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield has warned that this could mean sacrificing children’s learning and well-being.

Meanwhile, Mr Hancock said: ‘Our goal is to bring schools back in January with a big testing regime, and that means we need a staggered start in order to test people with the coronavirus test.’

Responding to claims that the testing plan had been announced too late, the Health Secretary said: ‘There are three weeks between now and the start of term and like so many people in the NHS there is going to have to be some work over the Christmas break.’

It comes after teaching unions hit out at the government’s plans to roll-out mass coronavirus testing to secondary schools and colleges and told members not to work on them over Christmas.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said the ‘last minute’ announcement of the testing proposals before the festive break made the scheme ‘undeliverable’. 

Furthermore, another education sector body warned the plan could see headteachers working on Christmas Day in order to put everything in place.

The four main teaching unions and the National Governance Association urged staff in a statement to put off preparations until term starts again in the new year.

It added that they should also refuse to work on the scheme while on their days off over Christmas.

‘It is our view that due to the chaotic and rushed nature of this announcement, the lack of proper guidance and an absence of appropriate support, the government’s plan in its current form will be inoperable for most schools and colleges,’ the statement said.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), called for a delay in students returning to schools after Christmas

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), called for a delay in students returning to schools after Christmas

Gavin Williamson held crunch talks with teaching unions on Friday over the mass-testing plans

Gavin Williamson held crunch talks with teaching unions on Friday over the mass-testing plans

Kevin Courtney (pictured left), joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), called for a delay in students returning to schools after Christmas. Gavin Williamson (pictured right) held crunch talks with teaching unions on Friday over the mass-testing plans

‘Schools and colleges simply do not have the staffing capacity to carry this out themselves. As such, most will not be in a position to carry this out in a safe and effective manner.’ 

Ministers are later said to have held crunch talks with union chiefs over the mass-testing proposals with the hope of getting more support for education staff over the programme.

But, according to the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), a breakthrough was not found.

In a letter sent to members of the NAHT, seen by MailOnline, union chiefs said: ‘At that meeting, the Secretary of State (Gavin Williamson) reiterated the government’s rationale for introducing mass testing in schools with secondary aged pupils during the week beginning 4 January.

‘He also reiterated the support the DfE is planning to offer schools. To be clear, this was essentially the same support as outlined last week.

‘As a result, NAHT’s position remains as previously communicated to you. NAHT has not been reassured that schools will receive the support we believe they need and deserve.

‘Our joint statement and advice issued on Friday remains unchanged.’

Labour meanwhile has urged the government to deliver on its mass testing promises.

At a press conference on Sunday, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: ‘I don’t think the Prime Minister should be delaying schools coming back any more than they’re already delayed.

‘What we need is a plan for schools to come back safely and that involves mass testing.

‘The Prime Minister has offered mass testing and now he has got to deliver on it.’

Mass testing reveals 1.24% of pupils and 1.29% of staff tested positive for coronavirus in study of England’s schools during first fortnight of November’s lockdown 

By Sam Blanchard, Senior Health Reporter for MailOnline

A mass testing study in England’s schools revealed that one in every 79 people tested positive for coronavirus without knowing they had it in November.

Office for National Statistics data showed that 1.24 per cent of pupils and 1.29 per cent of staff were carrying the virus while in school during the lockdown.

And the programme picked up one or more cases in 58 out of the 105 schools involved in the research between November 3 and 19.

The same number of schools found one case as found multiple – 29 in each category (27.6 per cent of the total).

Infection rates were highest among secondary school pupils in the study, and lowest in primary school staff, the report found.

Although teenagers have had some of the highest infection rates in the country during the second wave, closing schools is no longer included in lockdowns because of the long-term damage experts fear it could do to youngsters.

The ONS survey was conducted on 9,662 staff and pupils in 63 secondary schools and 43 primaries.

Two thirds of the schools were in areas with relatively high rates of coronavirus – the statisticians said the survey results were not fully representative of the whole of England because choosing high prevalence areas meant there was bias, likely to the North.

One of the study’s lead investigators said it showed ‘a significant number of students and staff who were attending school had coronavirus infection’.

But they admitted the results of the study were not statistically significant, meaning they are not strong enough to prove differences between the groups.

The ONS survey found that in the worst-affected parts of the country 1.47 per cent of school pupils and 1.5 per cent of staff tested positive for coronavirus.

This is equal to around one in every 67 people.

In areas that had lower rates of officially diagnosed coronavirus the survey found 0.79 per cent of pupils and 0.87 per cent of staff were infected without knowing – around one in 124.

In those area, secondary school staff were more likely to test positive than their pupils, the survey found.

No cases were found in primary schools in ‘low prevalence’ areas.

Schools are a major focus for scientists and officials because they have the potential to be hotbeds for transmission as proper social distancing is impossible – but for some reason they haven’t been conclusively linked to outbreaks.

Children and teenagers are significantly less likely to develop Covid-19 or any symptoms of viral infection than adults, scientists have found.

And they believe this may also make young people less likely to spread the virus, and the better immune response might mean they’re less likely to catch the illness in the first place.

Dr Shamez Ladhani, lead investigator on the study and a Public Health England epidemiologist, said: ‘While there is still more research to be done, these results appear to show that the rate of infection among students and staff attending school closely mirrors what’s happening outside the school gates.

‘That’s why we all need to take responsibility for driving infections down if we want to keep schools open and safe for our children.’

He said this was the ‘clearest picture to date’ of how coronavirus affects schools.

His colleague Professor James Hargreaves, from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, added: ‘These findings show that, in November, a significant number of students and staff who were attending school had coronavirus infection.

‘With this crucial collaboration between the scientists, school staff and pupils, and their parents, we hope to answer questions to ensure children’s education can continue in the safest way possible.’

Separate Public Health England data shows that some of the highest rates of infection during the second wave have been among teenagers.

In the most recent week, ending December 6, 10 to 19-year-olds had 193 positive tests per 100,000 people across England.

This was a higher per-person rate than any other age group except people in their 40s, among whom it was 196.

The highest rate for teenagers was 295 per 100,000 in the week ending October 11, when it was lower only than people in their 20s at 302.

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