The rule forcing schoolchildren to stay home and isolate for 14 days as close contacts of Covid-19 cases was “probably unnecessary”, HSE chief executive Paul Reid has said.
The National Public Health Emergency Team are meeting on Thursday to consider the spread of the Delta variant and Covid-19 cases in school and the effect of children isolating at home.
A further 1,346 cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed in Ireland. As of Sunday morning, there were 315 Covid-positive patients in hospital, of whom 59 were in intensive care.
There are about 12,000 children out of school as close contacts of cases among an overall school population of one million students, which is a “very small percentage,” said Mr Reid.
There was a need to balance “what is necessary and what is proportionate” in the public health advice for children being obliged to stay home from school as close contacts, he said.
“There is no doubt that these are difficult considerations but certainly the impact it is having on children out of school where it is probably unnecessary and the wider impact on their social development has to be considered too,” he told Newstalk’s On The Record on Sunday.
“Certainly the strong view from the public health teams is it is time to look at this policy now and Nphet are doing that.”
Mr Reid said that there were small outbreaks at 1,300 primary schools and preschool facilities and about 750 secondary schools. “It’s a very significant number of schools,” he said.
There was a “very significant, disproportionate number of cases” among children aged up to 18 accounting for 45 per cent of Covid-19 tests but just 20 per cent of the population, he said.
Speaking on RTÉ’s This Week radio programme, Mr Reid rejected the view of Clíona Ní Cheallaigh, an infectious diseases consultant at St James’s Hospital in Dublin, that most children under the age of 12 were going to be infected by Covid-19 by the springtime.
“We are not seeing most children being infected at all. In fact, if you look at the cases that we have had, it is a much smaller percentage of children at school,” he said.
More than 7 million Covid-19 vaccines have been administered with 92.5 per cent of the adult population having received at least one dose and more than 90 per cent fully vaccinated.
Mr Reid said the focus of the HSE was on trying to “sweep up” any remaining unvaccinated adults, immunising young people aged between 12 and 15, and making plans for third booster doses for immunocompromised people, the over-65s in long-term care facilities and the over-80s.
Professor Philip Nolan, chair of Nphet’s modelling group, in a series of tweets on Sunday, said that it was “highly unlikely” that most or all schoolchildren will be infected with Covid-19 in the coming months.
The claim was based on an “uncritical reading” of a recent modelling study. The assumptions in the model were very different from the experience in Ireland and based on the possibility of each infected child infecting two to four other children.
“This assumption is not realistic. Our experience is that with basic mitigation measures in place, including symptomatic children staying home from school, infected children do not transmit the virus to this many other children in school,” he said.
He said that the majority of infected children infect no other children school, while some transmit to one another and a small number transmit to more than one other child.
The average reproduction number in schools is less than one, he said, meaning that the virus does not spread in schools.