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8. Autumn 2020: How contact testing in UK schools collapsed
Changes to guidance led to substantial under-counting of outbreaks
This is a previous article reprinted as part of the Review of the UK's evidence base on Covid in schools.
Recent attempts at revisionism are suggesting schools could have continued operating normally throughout lockdowns without disruption, this stance fails to acknowledge that schools faced continuous disruption for two years. Education is still struggling with high absence rates of staff and students which impacts health and learning.
While claims are made that voices against efforts to cut transmission in schools was censored and silenced, in reality the opposite was true. Much of the media was hostile to any measures in schools while the rest balanced opinion.
What was actually happening in schools bore little resemblance to the image portrayed by government and PHE that seemed to suggest that covid stopped at the school gates.
The piece below covers the lead up from lockdown to schools reopening in September with minimal efforts to cut transmission after pressure on the DfE came the Treasury.
Schools did face disruption in September however this wasn’t distributed evenly. Areas of the north were hardest hit but even in areas of the south where cases were low it appeared to be a matter of luck, but once transmission got going in a school then disruption and sickness continued. By October the situation was eculating, with cases now starting to rise rapidly in the south, which we now know was in part due to the emergence of the Alpha variant. The government waited until the school Christmas holidays began before providing information on the Alpha variant.
October also began with the launch of the Great Barrington Declaration, a month after Carl Heneghan, Sunetra Gupta and Anders Tegnel meeting with the UK government. Around the same time the Covid Recovery Group of sceptic MPs was formed, the Brexit Party was reformed into the anti-lockdown Reform Party and a host of other groups like Covid19Assembly and PCRclaims were created.
The majority of the print media supported the Great Barrington Declaration as explained below.
There was a concerted effort to gaslight anyone who tried to raise concerns around transmission in schools, the government and advisors continued to claim children were less infectious and transmission in schools was merely reflecting community transmission, studies conducted under lockdown or with schools partially closed were held up as evidence transmission wasn’t occurring in schools. False statistics promoted by sections of the media continued to be repeated such as “only one teacher has died” and “no cases of an adult being infected by a child”. They bombarded us with the GBD and ran a succession of articles claiming T-Cell cross immunity meant there couldn’t be a second wave, we had claims the rise in cases was simply an artefact of testing from Carl Heneghan, and promotion of Micahel Yeadon’s PCR false positive paper that was the basis for the PCRclaims disinformation group.
The attacks by right wing media on those calling for action ramped up as they had not during the first wave. Those calling for measures were now labelled hard left activists, a process that had begun in the summer with the misrepresentation of the education unions calls for schools to open safely.
Covid19Assembly was launched suggesting most covid deaths weren’t from covid. As warnings of variants in other countries appeared there were professionals willing to go on record claiming variants were unlikely to be more harmful. Long covid was dismissed as merely post infection fatigue.
Every aspect of our understanding of covid gained over the course of 2020 was being systematically undermined. Claims hospitals were empty recirculated with mobs converging on some hospitals, phones in hand, as they demanded to be allowed onto the wards to take pictures.
Meanwhile the data on outbreaks in schools clearly showed we had a problem. Public Health reassured the public that covid was mainly mild in children and cases may level off without transmission spreading into older age groups.
However the PHE weekly surveillance reports showed education settings were a major source of outbreaks.
Yet despite schools being a main source of outbreaks much of the media didn’t mentioned this, focusing instead on universities and pubs. Newsnight even missed education settings off their graph of outbreaks.
Count up the percentages, around 40% is missing.
Contact Tracing in Schools
The covid contact tracing app had finally been launched after the initial design had been scrapped for a range of reasons. Some school began telling their staff not to use the app or to ignore isolation notifications, in some cases this was sensible, for example if someone left their phone in a staffroom or workroom. The covid app counted someone as a close contact if they spent an hour within four metres of someone who tested positive, in schools you were only classed as a close contact if you were within two metres of a person. Students were not supposed to have the app which was for ages 16+.
As positive cases in schools increased the number of students schools classed as close contacts began to decrease. In reality two metres was abandoned, it became who had the student been sitting next to. Staff were advised to stay two metres away from students, or to only come closer for the briefest amount of time. This meant that education workers were rarely classed as close contacts, a teacher could spend every day in an unventilated room with half of every class off with covid and still not be considered a close contact.
Public Health England had updated their guidance to take into account aerosols as a main source of transmission, meaning masks should be worn where there is poor ventilation but the DfE guidance was not been updated to account for this. Students were expected to wear masks on the school but had to take them off at the school gates. Ministers and professionals working with the government kept speaking of improved ventilation in schools, schools had been told to open the windows, there had been no investment in clean air. They said education settings had all the measures they needed, they were wrong.
On 11 October it emerged that in at least some areas contact tracers had been told not to escalate any cases that were identified from education settings.
Lancashire live reported Lancashire’s leaders were advised there was no prospect of schools, colleges or universities being ordered to close – with one source telling the LDRS that a government official indicated the position would likely remain the case even if such institutions were found to be the epicentre of the county’s Covid infections.
Discussions with local directors of public health and local authorities found a lack of consistency between areas, instructions from central government consisted of little more than simply saying that schools must stay open. Poorly worded and loosely defined instructions led to different interpretations, it suggested either negligence or a lack of understanding of what was really happening on the ground. Schools ended up getting conflicting instructions from different authorities.
Some first hand accounts from October
A head teacher in Leicester,
“Yesterday I was advised by the DFE that I didn't need to call in future cases and could manage it in school???????? I challenged the operator and asked how PHE could track or even identify an outbreak if this happened. I got the scripted response. Hasten to add I shall report all.”
Essentially as there was only one case it would be dealt as a one off. No questions about previous cases as before with PHE, no probing to see if transmission may have occurred in school like with PHE, no mention of outbreak teams getting in touch as with PHE. When questioned nada.
Yeap and they want schools open at all costs. Key area is transmission in the home according to the Government, could there just maybe, possibly be a link to schools. Rather than just folks not sticking to the rules.
They don't seem to understand students in a secondary school..just work out close contacts. Yeah okay that's easy in a bubble.of 240, breaks, lunch, line up etc.”
The official figures for outbreaks were a massive undercount, some schools were told they didn’t have an outbreak, they were just having multiple individual cases in short succession. Those schools who had been told to manage their own contact tracing and to stop calling to report cases will also not have appeared in the statistics being published in PHE’s weekly surveillance reports.
Many schools had effectively been abandoned.
The latest SAGE documents from meetings several weeks before were released, showing the government had been warned about cases rising in schools if adequate measures weren’t in place. Where this was reported it was often done with doubt or accompanied with explanations for why SAGE couldn’t be trusted.
By October half term the student absence rate was around 21%. On 15 October Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet science journal tweeted, “UK govt scientists are being blocked from speaking to media because of what is being called the “difficult political landscape.” One contributor to research we are publishing tonight was banned from speaking to a journalist this morning. Welcome to the totalitarian state of GB.”
Half term did not provide much of a reprieve, some schools were forced to close for a week due to lack of staff a week after returning and the DfE still refused to reconsider its guidance for schools. The Containment Framework that had been published to show the government had a plan b had not been implemented.
Government had required all schools to have remote learning in place (although the government had failed to keep their promise on laptops), blended learning is covered in their Containment Framework, although according to Nick Gibb at the time they had no intention of using the Framework.
If the government wanted to follow a high transmission strategy but without informing the public in the hope the mass infection of children would help reach herd immunity quickly, then they wouldn’t have had to make any changes to how they managed schools.
The Labour Party failed to hold the government to account, they would call for more to be done to halt transmission, talk of improved ventilation but Kier Starmer had said schools must go back “no ifs, no buts”, which meant that no matter how negligent the government was over tackling transmission they wouldn’t face any determined and sizeable opposition in parliament. Education leaders were abandoned to struggle as best they could without the resources they needed whilst being heavily constrained by DfE guidance.
Labour had been calling for a circuit breaker but wanted to keep schools open, claiming they were following the science this went against SAGE who had advised that education settings should return to having keyworker and vulnerable students in the building.
When a looser lockdown than the first was declared at the start of November, schools were expected to continue as normal. The run up to Christmas proved a disaster, technically schools were open but their ability to provide consistent education was severely hindered.