UK COVID-19 Update: Children Returning to Classrooms, and Indoor Care Home Visits Allowed

Peter Russell

March 08, 2021

Editor's note, 8 March 2021: This article was updated with today's daily data and information from a Downing Street briefing.

These are the UK coronavirus stories you need to know about today.

Children Back to Classes as Lockdown Restrictions Start to Ease

Children in England began returning to the classroom on Monday after 2 months of online learning, as a leading vaccinologist warned it could lead to an uptick in infections.

Most primary schools opened for all pupils today, but many secondary schools have scheduled a phased return to allow for in-school lateral flow tests to take place.

Nearly 57 million test kits have been delivered to schools and colleges across the country, the Government said.

Secondary school pupils will take three tests in schools in the first 2 weeks before being asked to perform two tests at home each week.

Secondary school and college students are being asked to wear face coverings, including in classrooms, wherever 2 metre social distancing cannot be maintained up until the start of the Easter holidays.

Dr Susan Hopkins, COVID-19 strategic response director to Public Health England, said:  "Schools re-opening for all students is important for children's wellbeing and mental health as well as their learning.

"Scientific studies show that rates of COVID-19 infection in schools reflect rates in the community and schools have reduced the risk of transmission. With extra precautionary measures and twice-weekly testing in place and the lowest rate of infection since September 2020 it's better that students are now back in the classroom."

Sarah Gilbert, professor of vaccinology at the University of Oxford, said that reopening schools could cause an increase in transmission of SARS-CoV-2.

Prof Gilbert, who leads the team behind the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine, said: "We've got kids going back schools, and that's absolutely necessary. But there may well be a slight increase in transmissions as a result of it."

However, she told the Independent that "if we can get the transmission rate down really low, then we can cope with a small increase".

Speaking at Downing Street this afternoon, Prime Minister Boris Johnson cautioned: "We must remember that today's return to schools will of course have an impact on the spread of the virus. And so, at all times, and as we decide on the next steps forward and when we take them, we will be driven by the data."

Elsewhere in the UK:

  • Northern Ireland: Children in primary 1 to primary 3 and those in nursery and pre-school went back today. Exam year pupils in secondary schools and colleges will begin their return on March 22.

  • Scotland: Children in primaries 1 to 3, and pupils in secondary pupils who need to do practical work for qualifications, have already returned to in-school learning. All remaining primary school children are set to return to school full-time from March 15, with all secondary pupils returning on a part-time basis from that date.

  • Wales: Children aged between three and seven began returning to primary schools from February 22. From March 15, all remaining primary school children can return to learning onsite. Secondary school pupils in qualification years are also set to be back in classrooms by this date.

Indoor Care Home Visits Allowed

Care home visits indoors from single named visitors were permitted in England from today.

One person can be nominated as a regular visitor who must follow strict infection control measures, including taking a rapid lateral flow test prior to visiting.

For the first time since the start of the current lockdown, visits can take place indoors without screens.

Personal protective equipment must be worn, and visitors will be asked to keep physical contact to a minimum. Hand holding is allowed, but close physical contact such as hugging is not.

Prior vaccination of either the resident or visitor is recommended but not a precondition.

Nominated visitors will not be permitted to enter care homes where there are COVID-19 outbreaks, the guidance stated.

Care home providers will be able to decide how the new arrangements should work.

The Department of Health and Social Care said it would review no earlier than April 12 whether to allow two visitors per resident.

Social Mixing Rule Loosened

In another milestone to a gradual route out of lockdown, two people from different households in England can meet outside for recreation, which could include drinking coffee together on a bench.

A ban on household mixing indoors remains in place.

From March 29, people will be able to meet outside in groups up to a maximum of six people, known as 'the rule of 6'.

Daily Data

A further 4712 positive tests and 65 deaths were reported on the Government's dashboard.

Dr Jenny Harries, England's deputy chief medical officer, told a Downing Street briefing this afternoon that the rate of infections was now about where it was at the end of September 2020 but at a level "at which a new wave could easily take off again".

As of March 7, 22,377,255 people had received a first dose of a vaccine, and 1,142,643 a second dose.
 

Warning on Legal Claims for Delayed Cancer Treatment

The NHS could be storing up a wave of legal claims from cancer patients and their families because of treatment delays resulting from the pandemic, it was claimed.

Leading cancer surgeons warned that the cost to the NHS from litigation could undermine efforts to repair health services post COVID.

Speaking at a seminar hosted by the Royal Society of Medicine, Prof Gary Middleton, a cancer surgeon in the West Midlands, said: "We don't know the scale of this yet but I think the likelihood is enormously high that potentially we're sitting on a medico-legal minefield".

Prof Middleton, who specialises in colorectal and lung cancer, said there had been a "huge number of late presentations" and "very late diagnoses". He said: "We've already seen complaint letters coming through of very angry patients that are being delayed on their surgery."

Although patients were "still quite shell shocked" by what has been happening in the past year, "inevitably there'll be people trooping out to the solicitors to try and put in claims", he predicted.

Prof Neil Mortensen, president of the Royal College of Surgeons, said: "I'm kind of frightened that the medico-legal storm will take away the money that we might have either or otherwise invested in [improving cancer care] capacity."

He suggested considering some kind of 'no fault' compensation early on, "because we don't want the lawyers to make all the money out of it".

Women Doctors Facing Mental Health Issues for 'Stepping Up' During Pandemic

Female doctors were more likely than male colleagues to feel 'compelled to step up' during the pandemic, even though they knew they were at risk, research by the British Medical Association (BMA) found.

Asked whether they had taken additional unpaid work over and above contracted hours as part of the response to COVID-19, 26.6% of women doctors in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland answered 'yes' compared with 23% of men.

The BMA said the results of its February tracker survey, released on International Women's Day, found that women doctors had consistently been taking on extra – often unpaid – work to the detriment of their own health.

The research revealed that 30.8% of women respondents reported mental health problems, including depression, stress, and burnout relating to or made worse by their work. That compared with 25.5% of men.

Dr Helena McKeown, a chief officer at the BMA, said: "Everyone in the NHS is currently going above and beyond in the fight against COVID-19, but to see the pressures that women are putting on themselves at the expense of their own health is shocking."

She added that "supporting the wellbeing of the health workforce must be a top priority in the long-term".

Concerns Over PPE for Hospital Staff

The Government's COVID-19 UK-wide infection control guidelines for protecting patients and NHS staff were "flawed and need replacing", an independent report commissioned by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said last Sunday.

The study authors, Dinah Gould, an honorary professor of nursing at London's City University, and Dr Edward Purssell, also from City University, said: “UK IPC guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in health care settings and the rapid reviews of the literature on which it was based still identify droplet spread and hands as the major route, based on early advice from the World Health Organisation.

"Updated evidence indicates that aerosol spread is much more significant and the original advice from the WHO has been superseded. The UK guidelines are still based on this outdated evidence, however."

The report said that nursing staff were concerned that current advice recommended higher grade PPE only in certain settings such as intensive care.

The authors called for urgent revision of the guidelines.

Dame Donna Kinnair, chief executive and general secretary of the RCN, said: "The report and its findings must launch an official review and not be swept under the carpet as an inconvenience.

"Health care workers need to know everything possible is being done to keep them protected. It is inadequate to say they have masks if they aren't fit for purpose. Staff are scared for themselves and their families and left any longer it’ll turn to anger."

Attitudes to COVID Vaccines

The overwhelming majority of Britons said they were positive about COVID-19 vaccines, official figures showed.

Data from the latest Opinions and Lifestyles Survey by the Office for National Statistics found that 91% of adults polled between January 13 and February 7 reported positive sentiment towards vaccination, while 9% were 'hesitant'.

Vaccine hesitancy was highest (44%) among Black or Black British Adults.

The survey found that 17% of adults aged 16 to 29 reported vaccine hesitancy – the highest of all age groups.

Statistician Tim Vizard said "concerns around side effects, long term effects, and how well the vaccine works" were the most common reasons given by people who were hesitant about receiving the vaccines.

The ONS said that positive sentiment about COVID-19 vaccination had increased to 94% for the latest period between February 24 to 28.

COVID Lockdown Arrests Follow Triumph by Rangers

Police in Glasgow made 28 arrests on Sunday after Rangers FC fans defied lockdown restrictions to celebrate their team being confirmed as Scottish Premiership champions.

Supporters made their way to Ibrox and Glasgow's George Square to celebrate the achievement, despite being warned to stay away.

Chief Superintendent Mark Sutherland, divisional commander for Greater Glasgow Division, said: "Despite the coronavirus regulations and the prohibition of gatherings, our officers were faced with a very difficult set of circumstances as many thousands of supporters gathered to celebrate across a number of different venues."

Seven people were issued with fixed penalty notices.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland's First Minister described the crowds as "infuriating and disgraceful" and said gathering in crowds could delay exit from lockdown.

Banksy's Superhero Nurse

Street artist Banksy hopes to raise more than £3 million for the NHS with the auction of a painting honouring health workers.

The 1 metre square painting, 'Game Changer' appeared at University Hospital Southampton in May 2020 during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It shows a kneeling young boy playing with superhero dolls, including a masked nurse with a cape.

The anonymous graffiti artist left a note for hospital workers saying: "Thanks for all you're doing. I hope this brightens the place up a bit, even if it's only black and white."

Banksy is planning to auction the original canvas to raise funds for NHS charities, with a reproduction of the work to remain in the hospital.

The painting has a pre-sale estimate of between £2.5 to £3.5 million, the BBC reported.

See more global coronavirus updates in Medscape’s Coronavirus Resource Centre.

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