Expert expresses fears over Covid outbreaks at Bristol schools

Outbreaks of the Delta variant at several schools across Bristol could signal that coronavirus infection rates in the city are higher than reported, an expert has said.

Around 11 primary and secondary schools are understood to be affected by the outbreak, with some cases confirmed as the variant first identified in India.

A parent at one school said that 12 cases had been confirmed across various year groups, including one member of staff. Most schools broke up for half term on 28 May.

A Bristol city council spokesperson said: “We are aware there are a number of confirmed and probable cases of the variant of concern … at some schools in Bristol. Our public health teams are working closely with these schools and Public Health England to make sure that anyone required to self-isolate has done so. As a precautionary measure, these staff and students are also being asked to take a PCR test.

“This particular variant of concern is more infectious, but we would like to reassure all residents of Bristol that work is in hand to identify and follow up all confirmed and probable cases with intensive contact tracing as part of our local outbreak management plan arrangements. We would like to encourage everyone to take part in regular rapid testing.”

Bristol’s rate of infection was 19 per 100,000 on 21 May, suggesting that either child-to-child transmission in schools could be driving a local epidemic or that rates in the community are higher than reported, potentially because of a lack of testing taking place.

One parent whose two children tested positive last week said: “Everyone was really shocked, because the Covid figures for Bristol were, and still are, extremely low.”

Julian Tang, a professor of respiratory sciences at Leicester University, said Bristol’s example could signal that schoolchildren are becoming the “canary in the coal mine” for rising case numbers in the community because they come into contact with more people and may be more likely to be tested by worried parents.

It could also signal that cases in the community are going undetected because unvaccinated people, who are mostly less vulnerable to severe effects from the virus, may be less likely to get tests as they are not worried about it or because they are concerned about being unable to work or socialise, he said.

The outbreaks undermined messaging from the government that “kids aren’t at risk and don’t pose any problems”, Tang said. “The virus doesn’t cause a lot of harm in children, but the risk is they spread it to older adults.”

Bristol was among eight local areas to receive incomplete data on positive tests following problems with the software used in England’s test and trace system in April and May. The failure has been blamed for a surge in the Delta variant in some of the worst affected parts of the country.

Data from Public Health England published last week showed 28 recorded cases of the variant in Bristol, compared with 1,354 in Bolton, the worst affected local area. There is a long time lag on this data, because genomic sequencing can take up to three weeks to determine the variant.

Scientists have called on the government to speed up the vaccination rate to prevent the spread of the Delta variant and recommended that the final phase of the roadmap to reopen the economy on 21 June be delayed until transmission rates slow down to prevent a third wave.

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