DECLINES in Covid-19 rates across the UK have masked a “rapid and steep” rise in cases amongst children, according to experts, who say early warnings that a lack of protections for them would lead to a wave of infections from the delta variant were not heeded.

They said the warnings were reiterated with omicron in December, but again little was done to make schools safer – leaving the UK an “international outlier” in its approach to Covid in children.

Simon Williams, a lecturer in psychology at Swansea University, and colleagues John Drury, Susan Michie, Christina Pagel and Adam Squires said that more than a third of a million UK children are currently missing school, nearly one in 10 teachers and school leaders are absent, and increased re-infection rates mean some children have had to isolate multiple times.

They argued that despite a much better understanding of what works to keep schools open and transmission lower, some protections for children are still not properly in place.

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Writing in the BMJ, they note that while the list of countries offering vaccines to children aged five and above is growing rapidly, the UK has still to offer advice as to whether the vaccine should be offered to all 5-11 year-olds.

“More transparency over when advice is likely to be provided is necessary and urgent to explain why the UK is an international outlier by not giving parents the choice of whether to vaccinate their child,” they said.

The experts also pointed to growing evidence that air cleaning measures can help reduce the spread of Covid-19 in schools, especially when combined with mask use amongst teachers and staff.

Yet, while a growing number of countries were making substantial investment in ventilation as part of a longer-term strategy to provide cleaner indoor air, the UK currently has focused only on “quick fixes to improve ventilation ... such as being able to open a window”, and recently providing just 7000 additional air-cleaning units to schools.

“It’s clear that classroom ventilation is not enough to stop omicron tearing through schools,” they said.

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The team acknowledged that children are at much lower risk of severe illness from Covid compared to (particularly older) adults, but said there were still a number of harms that come from attempting to “live with” high rates of infection in schools.

These include record numbers of hospital admissions among children with Covid, increasing rates of long Covid, and educational disruption due to very high pupil and teacher absenteeism related to infection.

Facemasks, they argued, should be considered a protection rather than a restriction, keeping children in school learning and teachers in school teaching, and added: “We could get further protection by upgrading from cloth or disposable surgical to filtering masks, which should be provided for free as in other countries.”

They concluded: “The UK Government’s claim to ‘keep children in the classroom’ is disingenuous and overlays a laissez-faire approach that in effect leaves children to get infected and miss out on the education and social and other development that school attendance brings.”

Public health expert Professor Andrew Watterson, from the University of Stirling, told The National the BMJ paper again highlighted the need for the continued use of multiple protections for children and education staff, in order to stop or prevent the resurgence of high Covid rates in schools.

He said: “This means not simply a reliance on vaccinations, and for younger children this may still be restricted, nor just effective masks and the introduction of effective ventilation, but critically using all three of these key protections combined.

“There is a view that masks are unnecessary now in schools because of declining Covid numbers yet these rates are still relatively high in Scotland.

“The benefits for children continuing to wear masks at this stage therefore far outweigh the risks of children not being able to attend school through more omicron illnesses and isolation of pupils and staff.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Our priority remains to minimise disruption to education while keeping schools safe for pupils and staff alike. As has been the case throughout the pandemic, all our decisions are based upon expert public health and clinical advice. 

“We don’t want measures – including face coverings - to be in place any longer than is necessary, and continue to monitor the data and evidence on an ongoing basis.”