Call for "firebreak" to keep Lancashire children away from school longer over Christmas and slow the spread of Omicron

Lancashire schoolchildren should be kept away from class for a period of home learning before and after the Christmas holiday, a leading teaching union figure has said.

Ian Watkinson, the county’s representative on the National Education Union's (NEU) executive committee, is calling for a so-called “firebreak” in an attempt to stem the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid.

He made the suggestion after Blackburn with Darwen’s director of public health floated the idea of an additional week being added either side of the forthcoming Christmas break. In a tweet earlier this week, Professor Dominic Harrison indicated his support for such a move “if we need new controls to protect lives and business continuity in critical infrastructure into the new year”.

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Lancashire aims to break down barriers to education based on where children live...
Ian Watkinson, Lancashire's representative on the executive committee of the National Education Union, believes a "firebreak" around the Christmas holiday could help stem the spread of Omicron...

Mr. Watkinson told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) that Lancashire’s two other public health bosses should now seriously consider making the same demand - and learn what he said were the lessons of ignored calls for a nationwide “circuit breaker”, as it was then described, ahead of the autumn half term in 2020.

“We know that...schools have been driving transmission of the virus in the community. Thank goodness, it’s a different dynamic now [compared to last year], because lots of people have been vaccinated - but not all children have had the opportunity to access the vaccine and we haven't had extra mitigation measures in schools, such as CO2 monitors and air filters.

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“We’ve also seen massive case numbers in primary schools, where none of the children have been able to get vaccinated at all, [because] we still haven't had that decision [from the government].

“Case numbers have been incredibly high even before Omicron hit, so calling for a firebreak looks to make perfect sense,” said Mr. Watkinson, who is also the chair of the NEU’s health and safety group.

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...but Lancashire County Council's director of public health, Dr. Sakthi Karunanithi, is not convinced that the move would make much difference if it was made in isolation

The union has not so far made the firebreak call at a national level, but Mr, Watkinson - himself a primary school teacher - said that when a local public health expert had done so, “then we've got to look at it”.

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Acknowledging that it may now be too late to implement a change to the pre-Christmas school timetable, he said that an early decision should be taken on having a firebreak after Christmas - although he would not be drawn on its possible duration. He claimed that the move could limit disruption to education in the longer term by preventing transmission in schools of cases likely to be acquired during mixing over the festive period.

“It’s not a decision that anybody would want to take lightly. But headteachers have faced last-minute U-turns throughout the pandemic, so what we don't want is a ridiculous knee-jerk decision.

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“The challenges that our local directors of public health have got is that the government is telling them that they can only do so much. It's about trying to minimise disruption to learning and, at the same time, protect teachers and children as far as possible.

“Why should we have to wait for what we all know is going to happen [with case numbers]? I think about last January and I can see it coming again - but let's hope not,” Mr Watkinson said.

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The UK Health Security Agency stated on Friday that there could be a million Omicron infections by the end of this month if the spread continues along current trends.

Meanwhile, the LDRS has obtained data showing that there were 690 Covid cases reported amongst pupils in schools in the Lancashire County Council area in the week to 5th December.

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Responding specifically to Mr. Watkinson’s comments, Lancashire County Council’s director of public health, Dr. Sakthi Karunanithi, said that a firebreak would not have the desired effect on transmission unless it was part of a wider societal shutdown - the like of which he hopes we have seen the last of. He also said that the spread of the virus is being driven more by household contacts than those made in the classroom.

“The issues are superimposed - just because children go to school doesn't mean schools are the source of transmission. There is an element of school [transmission], but most of it appears to be [from] siblings in [households],” said Dr. Karunanithi.

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“I don't think firebreaks will work this time round. Last time... there weren't many other options - this time around, it’s vaccines that [are the] defence wall.

“But vaccines are like the engine in a car - we do also need to have the wheels: fresh air, face masks and handwashing. They are the wheels to keep going through Christmas and beyond. While vaccines are working, they won’t work on their own, especially with an exponential increase in Omicron cases.

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“We have got a lot of tools that we didn't have before. We should not let Covid take away Christmas [or] our children's education - we just need to do a lot more focused work.

“There is always a possibility [of a lockdown], but it’s unlikely we would be in that situation given that we have got other tools in our box.”

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Dr. Karunanithi said that most parents were heeding local advice to keep the siblings of confirmed Covid cases off school even though national rules do not require them to do so.

Nationally, the NEU has set out a series of measures that it wants to see deployed in what it describes as a “plan B for schools” - including a return to face coverings for pupils and staff in secondary classrooms, rather than just communal areas, as the government ordered earlier this week.

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Lancashire headteachers have been contacted by the union asking them to consider how they might implement its suggested precautions.

Blackpool Council’s director of public health, Dr. Arif Rajpura, told the LDRS that he did not agree either with a Christmas firebreak or compulsory classroom mask-wearing at this point.