Rise in Omicron cases ‘almost inevitable’ when schools return, says expert

It is “almost inevitable” that Omicron cases will rise when pupils return to school this week, a virus expert has said.

Dr Christine Tait-Burkard, of the University of Edinburgh, said that, given the transmissibility of the new variant of Covid-19 and its prominence in Scotland, it is likely that numbers will rise.

Daily coronavirus cases in Scotland reached a record new high of 20,217 on Monday, with a daily test positivity rate of 34.9%.

The Scottish Government has urged secondary school pupils to take a lateral flow test before returning to school this week to limit the spread of Omicron, while those aged 12-15 are being encouraged to come forward for their second coronavirus jab for which they are now eligible.

It is “almost inevitable” that Omicron cases will rise when pupils return to school this week, a virus expert has said.

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Dr Tait-Burkard, a research fellow at the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute and an expert on coronaviruses, said cases are likely to increase even with mitigating measures.

She told BBC Good Morning Scotland: “It’s almost without a doubt that, when schools return, our numbers will increase further.

“The virus is very, very prominent in the population at the moment – the week before last, one in 40 people in Scotland had the virus, and that means as soon as schools return, with such a high transmissibility of Omicron, the numbers will rise further, that is almost inevitable.”

Asked whether this will happen even with mitigations such as mask-wearing and increased ventilation, she said: “Even with mitigations. As we’ve seen in the past they help to slow things down, just as they have slowed Omicron down quite successfully, actually, over the general population, but it’s both children returning to school, parents returning to workplaces, which will help the virus spread further than it has before.”

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Meanwhile, teaching union the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) said there is a “degree of nervousness” among members as pupils return from Wednesday.

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Safety guidance for schools was updated in December in light of Omicron and mitigations include physical distancing, one-way systems and the correct use of face coverings.

EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan told BBC Good Morning Scotland: “There will be a degree of nervousness, I think, because Omicron hadn’t really impacted dramatically on schools pre-Christmas. We saw an increase in absences in the final week or so, but the return this week for most schools, this will reveal just how significant the impact of Omicron has been.

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“And I think that, for many staff members, there may well be concern that we will see a further spread of infection within schools just given the high numbers of children and staff who will have been infected.”

Deputy First Minister John Swinney said he thinks the testing system can cope with the return to school.

He told the broadcaster: “I think it can.

“Obviously it’s important that individuals undertake those lateral flow tests, that is a critical part of our of our defence against Omicron.

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“I think what’s encouraging is that the level of lateral flow device testing is high, many individuals are participating. The most recent data I’ve seen indicates that, in the last seven days, 85% of the population took part in lateral flow tests, which is very, very good.

“But obviously, as people return to school, staff, pupils, as people return to the workplace, it’s important that they do that before they embark on it and then, of course, if they’re positive, to take the necessary steps to receive a PCR test.”

Pushed on whether there are enough PCR tests, he said: “I think there will be congestion at different points.

“It’s impossible for me to give you a guarantee that at individual test sites there will not be challenges in particular geographies, but I’m confident that we have got a strong testing proposition.”