OF all the things we know about Covid-19, one thing is becoming clear – very few children, particularly of primary school age, are getting sick.
Crucially, just as they are less likely than older people to become infected, they are also less likely to spread the virus.
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Yet, despite all the evidence, we are testing thousands of children every week because of paranoia that they will spread it.
Often, these children are being sent home because they appear to have Covid symptoms — but in fact have nothing more than a heavy cold.
Parents are being told they cannot bring them back until they present a negative test. Cue stress and inconvenience for the entire household, who must self-isolate until then.
In the week to September 23, of the 593,655 tests carried out, 88,340 were on children aged nine and under — 15 per cent of all tests.
Of those tests, 98.4 per cent were negative.
So why are we testing these children? It is time for a debate about whether we should be doing this.
RISK IS LOW
We could be a bit braver and leave the primary schools alone. Testing them should not be the priority.
Young children are not fuelling the outbreak. They are not generating hospital admissions.
But testing them is taking up a lot of resources and disrupting education.
Of course, if a child has a heavy cold, and maybe Covid symptoms, keep that child at home just as you would any sick child.
They could spread something else, such as flu, which is dangerous for children and is amplified by children.
But you don’t need to send all the children in the class that sit next to them home.
Some schools are sending the whole YEAR home.
In my view, the data is not supporting this decision-making, which causes harm to both the children who miss out on education and the parents who are not able to work.
Let’s look at the stats. When compared to adults, children are around 25 to 50 per cent less likely to become infected. They are then 60 to 90 per cent less likely to pass on the virus.
These studies are not perfect but are all pointing in the same direction — saying that children are not amplifying the disease.
Now, let’s put that in terms of the important “R” rate that the Government focuses on — the transmission rate that ideally should be below one.
If the entire population was made up of children under 11, the R would naturally be below one.
The risk, therefore, is low.
The other aspect we know about is hospital admissions. We know children make up one per cent of hospital admissions for Covid — and of those one per cent, one per cent have died.
In contrast, 99 per cent of hospital cases are adults and about a third of these have died.
So there is a dramatic difference in risk of severe disease and death.
Now, that data is rock-solid.
So the upshot is, we can be absolutely sure that children are not at risk of severe disease.
It is important we know all this because it can help us with our fear as parents: Will my child be hurt if they catch Covid at school?
If we accept that sending the kids to school isn’t going to harm them, the next question is: Does sending them to school amplify the outbreak?
Here, the data is just not supporting that.
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On the whole, most children are catching the virus from adults.
That’s really important because if we know they catch it from adults — and that once they’ve caught it they’re less likely to just pass it on — it means the outbreak cannot be amplifying from children.
So we know children aren’t the problem. Let’s leave those kids alone.
- Calum Semple is Professor of Child Health and Outbreak Medicine at the University of Liverpool and a consultant respiratory paediatrician at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital. He is a member of SAGE – the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies that advises Government in emergencies – but writes here in a personal capacity.
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