Covid outbreaks in schools surge by 78% amid spread of Indian variant

Coronavirus outbreaks in UK schools have risen 78% in a week, new data show.

Public Health England’s (PHE) latest flu and Covid-19 surveillance report, released on Thursday, showed there were 91 outbreaks from educational settings in the week up to 30 May: up from 51 outbreaks the week before.

It comes amid the continued spread of the now-dominant Indian variant, which has been renamed the "Delta" variant by the World Health Organisation (WHO). 

PHE has insisted Covid outbreaks and clusters in primary and secondary schools are occurring at "low levels" of about one in 250 schools.

However, Prof Christina Pagel, a member of unofficial Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), which scrutinises government policy, said Downing Street’s testing strategy to contain school outbreaks is “not working”.

The PHE surveillance report showed a sharp decline in Covid tests being performed in all educational settings since 8 March, when schools reopened in England.

The rising number of outbreaks, and declining number of tests, are demonstrated in the following two charts.

Coronavirus outbreaks linked to educational settings. The dates at the bottom represent the week beginning.
Coronavirus outbreaks linked to educational settings. The dates at the bottom represent the week beginning.
Coronavirus testing rates in educational settings. (Public Health England)
Coronavirus testing rates in educational settings. (Public Health England)

Ninety-one outbreaks is the highest number since the week ending 7 February, when there were 88 school-linked Covid outbreaks.

This was following the peak of the second wave, and while schools were shut to most pupils at this time, they were still open to vulnerable children or children of key workers.

Furthermore, government figures released in January showed five times as many pupils were attending primary schools than during the first lockdown.

Children face an extremely small risk of becoming seriously ill through Covid infection.

However, the need to self-isolate after testing positive disrupts pupils’ education, while “long Covid” also affects about one in 10 people.

In terms of wider community transmission, meanwhile, PHE has said there is "early evidence" the Indian variant infections may have an "increased risk of hospitalisation" compared to the Kent variant.

It said 278 people with the Indian variant had attended A&E in the past week, resulting in 94 people being admitted to hospital overnight. Last week, 201 people attended A&E, with 43 admissions.

The majority of those people admitted had not been vaccinated.