UK launches study on virus spread in schools as ONS death tally set to cross 50,000

A staff member checks a child's temperature at the Harris Academy's Shortland's school on June 04, 2020 in London. (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
A staff member checks a child's temperature at the Harris Academy's Shortland's school on June 04, 2020 in London. (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

THE UK government has launched a study to find out the prevalence and spread of the coronavirus among school children and teachers in England on Tuesday (9) to help inform the phased reintroduction of education after a lengthy national lockdown.

The move came even as the government dropped plans for all primary schoolchildren to return for classes this month after initially announcing the move as part of the first phase in the coronavirus lockdown being lifted.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson told the House of Commons that he wanted all children back to school in September, after summer break, and that “exams will take place next year”.

“We are not able to welcome all primary for a full month before the summer,” he added..

“We all know how important it is for children and young people to be in education and childcare and it is vital that we get them back there as soon as the scientific advice indicates that we can.”

The decision to gradually re-open schools has divided opinion, with Britain suffering the second-worst international death toll from Covid-19 and ministers warning of the need for caution to prevent a second wave of the virus.

The study will look to establish how widespread the virus is among children, who typically show mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, and how effectively they transmit the disease.

“This study will help us better understand how common asymptomatic and mild cases of Covid-19 are so that we can support parents, pupils and teachers and support-staff, and inform our ongoing response to this new virus,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock said in a statement.

Selected age groups have been able to attend schools since the beginning of the month, although some educators decided not to re-open because they said it was not safe. Older students will also begin some schooling from June 15.

The voluntary study will be administered by the Public Health England agency and will collect data from around 200 staff and pupils at up to 100 English schools.

Researchers will use both swab tests – which check whether a person currently has the virus – and blood tests, which check whether the person has previously had the virus and developed antibodies to it.

Data will also be fed into wider government programmes designed to establish how widespread Covid-19 is, and has been, throughout the community in order to help form policy and develop new tests and treatments.

Earlier in the day, an analysis of official data said the number of suspected and confirmed deaths from coronavirus in Britain had risen to almost 50,000.

The Office for National Statistics figures tallied all fatalities in which Covid-19 was suspected or mentioned on death certificates up to May 29.

The total of 49,989 is higher than the government’s latest daily figure of 40,597, which includes only the deaths of patients who tested positive for coronavirus.

The UK had announced 55 new deaths on Monday — the lowest daily toll since March 22.

On either measure, the toll is Europe’s worst and puts Britain behind only the US in officially announced deaths, although each country has different reporting methods and lag times.

The data also showed that deaths in England and Wales exceeded the average of the last five years by 57,961 in the 10-week period since the outbreak took hold in March.

Overall, an ONS expert said, about 64,000 more people than usual died in the UK during the pandemic.

Epidemiologists say excess mortality — deaths from all causes that exceed the five-year average for the time of year — is the best way of gauging the number to have died from a disease outbreak because it is internationally comparable.