Suspected covid-19 outbreaks in schools rise by 70%

The number of suspected coronavirus outbreaks rose by 70 per cent last week, new figures show, while the number of confirmed cases has also increased by a third.

Public Health England’s weekly COVID-19 surveillance report, published today, shows the number of acute respiratory outbreaks in schools rose from 14 to 24 – putting schools on the same number of suspected outbreaks recorded in hospitals. 

Of these, 12 were confirmed as coronavirus outbreaks, up from nine confirmed outbreaks the week before. 

PHE guidance states, as the winter season is left behind and infections like flu become “less prevalent, we would expect most outbreaks in community settings to be related to COVID-19”.

An outbreak is defined as two or more people experiencing a similar illness, which appears to be linked to a particular setting.

The report states: “While care home outbreaks have continued to decline, an increase in school and ‘other settings’ outbreaks have been noted over the past few weeks.”

Schools started welcoming back more pupils on June 1. Last week marked week two of wider reopening. While two thirds of primaries opened more widely, fewer than 40 per cent of eligible pupils returned.

Dr Joshua Moon, a research fellow at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), said: “I would be fairly confident the opening of schools has increased transmission within schools, but that is also what you would expect – the question is whether or not you can jump on that and get it under control.”

Between April 20 and May 24, the number of suspected outbreaks in schools did not rise above four, however it has shot up to 15, 14 and 24 in the past three weeks respectively.  

This week pupils in year 10 and year 12 also began returning to school.

But, overall, the number of new acute respiratory outbreaks only rose slightly from 197 to 199. 

The report also adds that hospital and ICU admission rates “continued to decline slowly. Similarly, there has been a steady decline in COVID-deaths and there has been no significant overall excess all-cause mortality in week 24.”

Moon previously warned the impact of schools reopening would not be seen until future weeks due to COVID-19’s incubation period. 

He added: “The easing of lockdown will be contributing to this – the increase is probably because there is more interaction now.

“With secondaries [now opening] I can imagine that’s going to go up even further.” 

On the difference between the total number of outbreaks and those confirmed Moon added: “In suspected cases you have all the symptoms, all the signs point to you probably having COVID-19 but you haven’t yet done the tests”.