SCHOOL children returning to class in September will trigger a devastating second wave of Covid-19 that could infect twice as many as before, a major study claims.
Scientists said reopening schools in the UK would result in a crisis peaking in December unless the test and trace system drastically improves.
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The study said school reopening must be combined with a high-coverage test-trace-isolate strategy.
The authors found that “with increased levels of testing… and effective contact tracing and isolation, an epidemic rebound might be prevented”.
But in a worst-case scenario, a second wave could be 2.3 times higher than the first, according to the study published in The Lancet Child And Adolescent Health.
Three quarters of people with Covid-19 would need to be tested and self-isolate to prevent a second wave caused by schools reopening.
'NOT GOOD ENOUGH'
The NHS contact tracing system must reach 68 per cent of cases and their contacts, the experts said, adding that the current system is "not good enough".
One of the study authors, Chris Bonell, professor of public health sociology at LSHTM, said: "It looks from the ONS data like there are about 4,200 new infections per day.
"And it looks like from the testing data there are about 4,200 testing positive per week. So it looks like about one in seven (14 per cent). So, that's not good enough, basically."
Under the current system, only half of contacts are reached and only a fraction of symptomatic cases are tested, according to researchers from University College London and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Without drastic improvements in testing the authors say it will be "absolutely essential" to introduce other measures in September to mitigate the effects of schools opening.
Another study published out of Australia today suggested that schools could re-open safely but only if strict rules and robust contact tracing were adhered to.
The research looked at how Covid-19 spread in schools across NSW Australia, one of the only countries to keep schools open during the pandemic.
The study, published today in The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health, found "low levels of transmissions in schools and nurseries when control measures are in place".
Dr Jasmina Panovska-Griffiths, study author, said: "Our modelling suggests that with a highly effective test and trace strategy in place across the UK, it is possible for schools to reopen safely in September.
Without sufficient coverage of a test-trace-isolate strategy the UK risks a serious second epidemic peak either in December or February.
"However, without sufficient coverage of a test-trace-isolate strategy the UK risks a serious second epidemic peak either in December or February.
"Therefore, we urge the government to ensure that test-trace-isolate capacity is scaled up to a sufficient level before schools reopen."
Commenting on the study, Matt Keeling, professor of populations and disease at University of Warwick, said: "In essence the problem is simple.
"Reopening schools is going to increase the R number so if we are to keep R below 1 and prevent a second wave, some other forms of control are necessary.
'CALL TO ACTION'
"The reopening of schools should clearly be a key priority for the UK, many children will have gone over 5 months without setting foot in a classroom.
"The key questions are how much impact will school reopening have on the epidemic and what can be done to mitigate this."
The study found a second wave could be prevented if a robust testing and an adequate contact tracing system was in place.
Professor Bonell said: "Our study should not be used to keep schools shut because of a fear of a second wave but as a loud call to action to improve the infection control measures and test and trace system so we can get children back to school."
He said: "We're not giving specific recommendations about what sectors need to have restrictions imposed, but logically that is absolutely essential."
England's chief medical officer last week hinted pubs and restaurants may have to shut in order for schools to reopen fully in September.
Professor Chris Whitty said getting children back into the classroom is pivotal for the “wellbeing of our country” – and hinted that Brits will have to sacrifice other freedoms in order to do so.
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