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Frightening prediction Most children will contract Covid by early 2022 unless schools made safer, says specialist

Prof Cliona Ni Cheallaigh, who is a consultant in St James’ Hospital, also said that the country is currently letting the disease “rip through primary schools”


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An infectious disease specialist fears that most children under the age of 12 in Ireland will contract Covid-19 by early next year if more isn’t done to make schools safer.

Prof Cliona Ni Cheallaigh, who is a consultant in St James’ Hospital, also said that the country is currently letting the disease “rip through primary schools”.

Recent figures from the Health Surveillance Protection Centre show there were 11 recorded Covid outbreaks in primary schools in the seven days up to September 4, with up to 12,000 children restricting their movements at home due to being close contacts.

Prof Ni Cheallaigh said that, while keeping schools open is the number one priority, enough hasn’t been done to keep children safe.

“That said we’ve got Delta, everybody under 12 is not vaccinated, and they’re in classrooms with no masks and there hasn’t really been the type of work in ventilation done that would make the schools safer.

“So if I were a betting woman, I would probably be betting that most kids in Ireland will be- under 12- will be getting Covid before the Spring the way we’re going on now. Not many kids are going to get very unwell,” she told RTE Radio.

Asked by programme host Brendan O’Connor if her prediction was scientifically based, Prof Ni Cheallaigh said it was based on modelling done in the US and through speaking with her infectious disease colleagues.

“Delta is really transmissible, we have a lot kids in a small environment with no masks and we know that’s the type of environment Covid spreads in,” she said.

“That’s my prediction, I’m not 100pc sure, I think we can avoid it if we do what we know works really well in preventing Covid transmission indoors, which is ventilation and masks,” she added.

“I don’t think we are really trying to stop the spread in primary schools… it’s not possible to do that within an unventilated classroom with 30 children who aren’t wearing masks,” the infectious disease consultant said.

“I think the way we’re doing it at the moment, we’re letting it rip through primary schools.”

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Prof Ni Cheallaigh said she was also concerned about the impact of long Covid and that data from the UK and other places showed that between 2-10pc of children had symptoms months after first contracting Covid.

This, she said, is further reason to get primary school aged kids to wear masks and for ventilation in schools to be sorted out “urgently”.

However, chief executive of the HSE Paul Reid said he doesn’t agree that most children under the age of 12 will contract Covid-19 by early 2022.

“I don’t expect so, that’s not what we are seeing currently,” he said on RTÉ Radio One’s This Week.

“We are not seeing most children being infected at all. If you look at the cases that we have had it’s a much smaller percentage than total children in school.

“Right now, including close contacts, there’s probably about 12,000 children out of the total one million so it’s a very small percentage.”

He added that what is happening in schools at the moment is what the HSE would’ve projected.

“We now have 13,000 primary schools and early learning centres where we have had an outbreak and we now have 750 secondary schools,” he said.

“If you just take the case numbers for the past seven days or so 45pc of the case numbers are coming from the 0 to 18 age group and they would generally represent 20pc of the population.

“We can see the high concentration of cases, however, what we do know is – and we’ve seen this in every wave so far – is children at school is the best thing for them, for their social education, for their physical education and we do know that the transmission levels are not as high in school as we see in the community

“So, thankfully, what we have seen over the last short while is the number of cases coming down and the positivity coming down in school.”

Meanwhile, speaking to Newstalk today, Mr Reid said there is a need to balance “what is necessary and what is proportionate” with the public health advice for children being obliged to stay home from school as close contacts.

“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 said.

“Certainly the strong view from the public health teams is it is time to look at this policy now and Nphet is doing that.”

Figures from last week show that children have tested positive for the virus in 1,011 primary schools and early education settings, as well as in 632 secondary schools.

It has led to a surge in demand for testing and pressure on HSE public health teams.

The demand was highest among the under-14s, although the number of youngsters testing positive has fallen from 13pc to 6pc since the beginning of term.

Several schools revealed last week that they had trouble getting through to a special HSE helpline for principals to notify public health staff of a positive case.

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