The chief medical officer defended a “more targeted” approach to contact tracing in schools.
The Public Health Agency has taken over contact tracing of positive Covid-19 cases in recent weeks as new guidelines have come into force.
Previously, large numbers of children and young people had to miss school to isolate themselves after being identified as contact.
Sir Michael McBride told Stormont’s education committee that keeping children in school is a “key priority”.
He said in previous waves of the pandemic this had not been possible, adding that it had been “very damaging” to children both in terms of mental health and education.
“While children and young people have a relatively low risk of serious illness and hospitalization, they are at particularly high risk of socio-economic harm and long-term well-being,” he told MPs .
“We must continue to strike a balance between safeguarding the education and well-being of children and measures to contain Covid in the community.
“After reviewing all the evidence, I am confident as the Chief Medical Officer that the time has come to introduce a more targeted approach to identifying close contacts and finding that balance. “
He said he understood the concerns expressed by children, parents and school staff and welcomed the opportunity to address them publicly.
Sir Michael said everyone agreed that schools are the best place for young people, and while previous school closures were “absolutely necessary to reduce the growth of the pandemic,” he added: ” This is no longer the case”.
He described the schools as “safe for children and staff,” adding that studies conducted earlier in the pandemic in England indicated that the vast majority (98%) of children identified as close contacts of cases did not. not developed Covid-19.
It is my professional opinion, shared by Chief Medical Officers of Health across the UK, that very few or no children or adolescents will suffer long-term damage from Covid solely as a result of attendance. schoolSir Michael McBride
“There is a consistent body of evidence that now supports the movement for a more targeted approach to identifying close contacts as the correct and proportionate approach at this point in the pandemic,” he said.
Sir Michael also told MPs that there is additionally a ‘very effective’ vaccine, as well as ‘clear evidence that Covid rarely results in serious illness or hospitalization and even less often death’.
He said emerging studies have also indicated that children are at low risk of developing long-term Covid.
“It is my professional opinion, shared by chief medical officers across the UK, that very few or no children or adolescents will suffer long-term damage from Covid solely from attendance at the school, ”he said.
“I think we have to compare that to the virtual certainty of long-term harm to children and young people from not going to school.”
Meanwhile, responding to a question from committee chair Chris Lyttle, Sir Michael said an informed consent leaflet was being prepared for parents aged 12 to 15 around the Covid-19 vaccine, adding that the jab should be deployed to this cohort in late September or early October.
Sinn Fein MP Pat Sheehan and Daniel McCrossan of the SDLP said they believed the chief medical officer appeared to have received reports from principals different from those they had received.
Mr Sheehan said the reports were “completely at odds” with what he had heard at the meetings.
“I get the same story from everyone, it puzzles me that the head doctor would get a different story, it’s not just the principals, it’s the unions and others who give us a similar picture and this is not the case ‘don’t marry what the CMO was saying this morning,’ he said.
Mr McCrossan added: “I know that most of the members of this committee have heard some very difficult stories in schools and they are certainly not reflected in what has been reported to us during this session. “
Education Minister Michelle McIlveen also appeared before the committee on Wednesday morning.
She described the latest guidelines for schools as being designed to “allow principals to lead”, moving “from prescriptive status to being as permissive as public health boards allow”.
The minister said her ministry would bid for capital funding for carbon dioxide monitors for schools.
She said localized problems can arise and if action is needed at the regional level, there are “escalation measures” from last year that can be reinstated.
“I remain concerned about the impact of the pandemic on our children and youth, but I am convinced that the more focused approach to contact tracing that has been agreed upon would result in fewer students having to isolate themselves unnecessarily,” he said. she declared.