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pressure mounts Antigen tests and contact tracing for pupils on table in battle to keep schools open

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Stock image of a child with a facemask in school

Stock image of a child with a facemask in school

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Stock image of a child with a facemask in school

Antigen testing and contact tracing are back on the table for pupils as pressure mounts to keep schools open.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said yesterday that children who are in a pod at school may be sent an antigen test if their group has a confirmed case of Covid.

However, his comments appear to contradict statements from the HSE National Lead for Testing and Tracing Niamh O’Beirne, who has said there is insufficient international evidence to support the use of antigen testing in schools.

The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) will also be revisiting the issue of contact tracing as the Tánaiste said he did not want to see a return to a situation where children who are close contacts are sent home for 10 days as this was “very disruptive”.

He said antigen tests may be rolled out to schools in a way in which children without symptoms who are in a pod with a confirmed case will be sent antigen tests.

“If one kid gets infected, then it might make sense to test all the kids in the pod as well, using rapid tests,” he told reporters.

He said that sending home children who are close contacts would not be overcompensating.

“What we don’t want to go back to is children being excluded from school for 10 days because that was very disruptive and larger than necessary because the vast majority of them didn’t have Covid,” he added.

His comments follow weeks of speculation that antigen testing may or may not be rolled out in classrooms.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Drivetime, Professor Martin Cormican, the HSE’s Clinical Lead for Antimicrobial Resistance and Infection Control, said there is currently no plan to provide antigen tests for children who are close contacts because he said the HSE “does not believe there’s an added value for testing children”.

He said health chiefs do not want to “medicalise all aspects of the lives of children all the time”.

“We are not recommending that everybody tests themselves all of the time,” he added.

He said the best way to keep safe is to reduce contacts and to meet people outdoors as much as possible.

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Prof Cormican said lots of options were considered, but An Post reaches everybody in the country and this was seen as a practical option for sending antigen tests.

Asked about potential two or three-day delays in getting tests to people, he said it was “a reasonable delay”.

Prof Cormican said this would provide an element of additional insurance for those who are fully vaccinated and asymptomatic.

He added that people who are most infectious are those who have symptoms. The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) reiterated its call to reinstate contact tracing in primary schools, adding that it “welcomes” Dr Ronan Glynn’s call to cut children’s activities and signalled school-related activities should also be “restricted” to prevent the virus from spreading.

INTO said it “remains concerned” that the number of children of primary school age testing positive for Covid has risen by almost 50pc since the start of October.

“We believe the decision to end contact tracing and testing in schools was premature,” an INTO spokesperson said.

“We believe that school-support measures need to be augmented and that school-related activities should continue to be restricted between Halloween and Christmas.”

Despite concerns from Dr Glynn that children’s extra-curricular and social activities should be curtailed, Taoiseach Micheál Martin indicated matters would stay as they are for now.

There would not be an extended mid-term break and the Government is determined to keep schools open, he said, despite evidence of an increase in infection among children at primary level in particular.

He added that “no consideration” was being given to more days off for pupils.

He also dampened any ideas of a “circuit-breaker” or any other new restrictions because of Covid-19 amid concern as cases rise in schoolchildren.

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