Back-to-school plan could prompt coronavirus surge without test and trace improvements, ministers warned
The study’s authors say it is ‘currently unclear when the UK test–trace–isolate strategy will achieve sufficient coverage’ to allow schools to safely reopen.
The Government’s coronavirus test and trace programme is not currently doing enough to prevent a second wave of Covid-19 if schools reopen, scientists have warned.
A study carried out by researchers from UCL and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine — published in The Lancet journal — says the tracking scheme will need to be “scaled-up” to avoid a major resurgence of the virus when children return to the classroom in September.
The Government wants schools to reopen from the start of the new academic year, with limited numbers of pupils returning in June.
Boris Johnson has described the plan as a “national priority”.
But the researchers, who have modelled a range of outcomes for the school proposals, say that a second wave can only be prevented with a more effective test and trace programme in place.
Under the NHS scheme, people with symptoms of coroanvirus are tested and enter self-isolation if it is found that they have Covid-19.
They must then inform the NHS of everyone they have come into close contact with, with those contacts then approached and told to spend two weeks in quarantine.
The researchers say that “reopening schools either full time or in a part-time rota system from Sept 1, 2020, alongside relaxation of other social distancing measures will induce a second COVID-19 wave in the absence of a scaled-up testing programme”.
And they add: “This second wave would peak in December, 2020, if schools open full time in September, and in February, 2021, if a part-time rota system were adopted. In either case, the second wave would be 2·0–2·3 times larger than the first COVID-19 wave in the UK.”
But the study says it “might be possible” to avoid a second wave of Covid-19 “if enough people with symptomatic infection can be tested, and contacts of those diagnosed can be traced and effectively isolated”.
A second wave could, it suggests, be prevented if both 75% of people with Covid-19 symptoms are found and 68% of their contacts traced — or if both 87% of people with symptoms are found and 40% of their contacts traced.
“We still found that it is possible to avoid a second COVID-19 wave across all scenarios of school and society reopening and different tracing levels, if the test–trace–isolate strategy tests a sufficiently large proportion of the population with COVID-19 symptomatic infection and traces their contacts with sufficiently large coverage,” the study says.
It concludes: “In summary, our findings suggest that reopening of schools can form part of the next step of gradual relaxing of lockdown if combined with a high-coverage test–trace–isolate strategy.
“It is currently unclear when the UK test–trace–isolate strategy will achieve sufficient coverage.”
Speaking to BBC Breakfast on Tuesday, Communities minister Simon Clarke said the test and trace system was “undoubtedly still maturing”.
But he said the Government was “confident” it was “helping to take people who may have been exposed to coronavirus and making sure that they're self isolating”.
He added: “We obviously want that to continue to increase but it is a system which, let’s not, forget didn't exist just a few weeks ago.”
The study's findings come after the Government’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, said the UK was now “near the limit” of easing coronavirus restriction without prompting a resurgence of the virus.
He said at the latest Number 10 press conferenece: "We have to be realistic about this. The idea that we can open up everything and keep the virus under control is clearly wrong.
"And what we're seeing is that we are at the outer edge of what we can do, and therefore choices what needs to be made.
"But people, I think are very clear, for example, that schools are an absolute priority for the welfare of children."
Downing Street on Monday said the return of schools remained “vital” for the education and development of children, with a spokesperson saying: “We are planning for all pupils in all year groups to return to school full-time from the beginning of the autumn term.”
When asked to clarify reports that some sectors of the economy could be required to close to allow schools to open safely, the spokesperson said: “The measures which we’ve set out to allow schools to reopen include reducing mixing between pupils, staggering breaks and increasing the frequency of cleaning and more handwashing.
“And we believe we have provided the basis on which all schools can get pupils back for the start of the coming term.”