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Herts County Council ready to manage Covid outbreaks as schools reopen

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Education authority Hertfordshire County Council is ready to help schools with Covid-19 outbreak management as the autumn term begins next week.

Youngsters returning to secondaries as September starts will have to complete three lateral flow tests in their first week back – including two conducted by their school. That measure will result in a staggered start to the new academic year for many pupils.

An easing of Government restrictions from August 16 means students and staff can now remain in class even if they have been in close contact with the virus.

The Bishop's Stortford High School testing scheme (50589538)
The Bishop's Stortford High School testing scheme (50589538)

A mandatory 10 days in quarantine no longer applies to those under 18 or anyone who has been double-vaccinated. Currently, everyone aged 16 or over and some children aged 12 to 15 who have a higher risk of getting seriously ill from Covid-19 or who live with someone at high risk of catching it can get a jab.

In addition, schools are no longer required to carry out contact tracing after positive cases and do not have to enforce social distancing, require face coverings or segregate students in bubbles. Instead, NHS Test and Trace will encourage testing of those it identifies as close contacts of positive cases.

The county council will step in with “outbreak management” support only if infection thresholds are breached – for example, if five students or staff who are likely to have mixed closely test positive for Covid-19 within a 10-day period. Then measures such as reintroduction of masks and a ban on assemblies will be considered.

The Department for Education is currently trialling a pilot scheme to monitor carbon dioxide in classrooms to ensure there is adequate ventilation and the council said it would be reviewing the results to see if further support for the county’s schools was required.

However, Geraldine Bruce, HCC’s head of health protection, stressed: “Schools are safe places... children are mixing now [during the holidays] without any oversight or protections, but schools have excellent measures in place.”

Her assurances came as Hertfordshire’s director of public health, Professor Jim McManus, said Covid-19 was currently stable across the county “but not in a good way”.

In Hertfordshire, 847,351 people, or 65.12% of the population, have had one Covid-19 jab and 745,406 (57.29%) have had two. However, the Delta variant of the virus is continuing to circulate and positivity rates remain relatively high.

Hertfordshire director of public health Jim McManus (50589498)
Hertfordshire director of public health Jim McManus (50589498)

Prof McManus said they spiked, hitting 551 cases per 100,000 population, on July 19 as the last restrictions were removed. “It’s come back down but it’s showing no real signs of declining further,” he said. “It’s hit a plateau.”

He said the virus was still in epidemic mode but stabilising as if it was endemic at around 300 cases per 100,000. Testing indicated that of the 17- and 18-year-olds swabbed, around 21% were positive, compared to older age groups at around 4%.

Hospitalisations and the number of patients who need mechanical ventilation were increasing and there was a rise in deaths too, with 15 in the week beginning August 13.

He said: “The Delta variant has done an exceptional job of becoming the dominant variant.”

The good news, he said, was that vaccines were still proving effective. But he cautioned: “Infections are surging and that risks creating more variants.

“The vast majority of people who are ill and in hospital are people who are unvaccinated or partly vaccinated – and that includes people under 40.

“The virus is finding unvaccinated people very effectively, and when it runs out of unvaccinated people, 20% of vaccinated people are vulnerable.”

He urged residents to continue taking precautions such as handwashing and ventilation, not least because gastroenteritis and food poisoning, both absent at the height of the pandemic, were again causing illness.

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