Schools and colleges were shut during the first wave of the virus with exams cancelled
The National Public Health Emergency Team did not recommend a delay in opening schools but has warned the Government that education at primary and secondary level education is at risk due to the rapid spread of Covid-19.
Dr Tony Holohan outlined the situation in a letter the Minister for Health on December 30 ahead of Level 5 restrictions being announced and after NPHET met on Thursday.
"The NPHET today gave specific consideration to the reopening of schools next week. The NPHET was of the view that schools should reopen as planned.
"However, the NPHET did note that the high and rising levels of community transmission will become a risk to the ongoing provision of education at primary and secondary level unless these levels of transmission can be addressed. NPHET will continue to review this issue over the coming weeks," it said.
The letter did highlight the recent huge growth of the virus and the expected rapid rise if the spread cannot be quickly checked. It advises big numbers even if Level 5 works quickly. The expert team warned that the closure of schools as happened last March could not be ruled out.
"The current epidemiological situation gives rise to immense concern and represents an immediate and grave threat to all key public health priorities which include the protection of vulnerable groups and the continuation of care across all areas of the health and social care system, and the continued delivery of education and childcare services," warned the Chief Medical Officer.
His letter warned Minister Stephen Donnelly and the Government that said there have been 21 outbreaks associated with schools in week 52 with 43 linked cases. It adds that transmission in the school setting has not necessarily been established in these outbreaks.
The Government has delayed the reopening of schools until January 11 but childcare must reopen on schedule. The Taoiseach Micheál Martin has insisted that schools will reopen.
The R rate is about 1.8 at present. NPHET has warned that if the Covid-19 R rate is reduced to 1.4 from December 30, there would be at least 2000 cases per day on average by 9 January 2021, and 3000 cases per day by 23 January 2021. Bringing R to 0.9 from today would see cases peak at around 1,800 daily by the middle of January but there will still be 1,200 cases by the end of the month.
As for hospitalisations NPHET says and R rate of 1.4 would mean there would be 800 people with COVID-19 in hospital by 15 January 2021, and 1,300 by the end of January.
NEPHT cautions that it is unlikely that significant suppression will be achieved in so short a time frame, so actual case numbers are likely to exceed the lower R rate projections.
Dr Holohan informed Minister Donnelly that the continuing overarching objectives of NPHET’s recommendations are to: protect public health in the first instance, particularly in relation to those most vulnerable to the severe outcomes of COVID19; to ensure the safe delivery of health and social care services for care needs unrelated to COVID19; to enable safe provision of childcare services and to ensure that schools remain open.