Fears of summer chaos in schools and offices as Covid restrictions are swept away
Boris Johnson is facing increasing warnings of a summer of chaos in schools and workplaces, amid urgent demands for clarity over the government’s plans to tackle an unpredictable escalation in Covid cases.
Retaining advice to wear masks in certain settings and abandoning quarantine for anyone in England who is fully vaccinated are measures being examined by the government to stop a resurgence in cases and more enforced isolations – something that also risks hitting the NHS workforce.
Senior scientists warn that it is still possible for hospitals to be stretched over the summer should no Covid suppression measures stay in place after 19 July, when legal restrictions are due to be lifted. Doctors are already demanding that some measures remain over the summer, while teachers and parents are warning of a chaotic situation in schools, with different institutions applying different rules for sending children home if they have been exposed to Covid.
The competing demands of schools, businesses and the NHS, and the potential course of the disease, now present Johnson with difficult decisions over his timetable for the end of restrictions. While hospital admissions have been rising in England, doctors speak of a “slow burn” to levels that remain manageable. However, some are warning that along with staffing pressures and high levels of emergency admissions, an increase in Covid patients could have an effect on non-Covid services.
Scientists warn that a big third wave of cases would be enormously disruptive, even if hospitalisations and deaths were greatly reduced. Case numbers stand at about 27,000 a day. “At present, we still have a tracing system where contacts have to self-isolate,” said Prof Mark Woolhouse of the University of Edinburgh. “If for every case, you’re asking five or maybe even 10 people to self-isolate, the disruption caused by a big wave will be massive. So the government may well have to think about their policy regarding contacts, for that reason.
“The government has now got a very difficult decision to make. If they go through with the unlocking, I have to assume they are confident cases will not rise above 100,000 a day and that there won’t be a huge surge in hospitalisations. Some of the models say that is a possibility.”
James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute in Oxford, said the country was now “firmly in a third wave of cases”.
He added: “The Delta variant is still growing despite track and trace, despite testing, despite restrictions and despite masking, and unless you are lucky or extremely careful, we are all going to be exposed to Delta. And since track and trace has failed to hold back Delta in the UK, it is unclear whether its retention has any value to public health, particularly given current vaccination rates.” However, he said, vaccinations and time will eventually end the Delta wave in the UK.
Ministers are considering retaining guidance on the wearing of masks, while ending legal requirements on their use. They are also planning to end quarantine for those with two vaccinations. However, Prof Robert West, a psychologist who advises the government, warned that the approach could cause “resentment”.
Meanwhile, a chaotic picture has emerged in schools as data reveals the vastly different approaches that headteachers in primary and secondary schools are taking to isolating pupils.
Just over half (54%) of heads in primaries said they had recently asked a whole class to self-isolate when one child tested positive, while a third (32%) had asked all the children in the same year-group bubble, according to a survey of 8,000 teachers by the Teacher Tapp app. However, heads in secondary schools, where year groups are typically larger, have taken a different approach. Four-fifths (79%) asked only those children sitting closest to self-isolate, while just 11% asked this of all children in the same class and 5% in the same year bubble.
Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, warned that the government had “failed to outline a credible plan to push cases down”. He added: “Vaccination is immensely effective but we also need proper isolation support to break transmission. Crucially, the NHS, who are still in the dark about future Covid funding, deserve clarity as to whether they will get the much-needed resources for the coming winter. With rumours that ministers are already preparing a winter restriction plan, this extra investment is urgent.”