Dr Sara discusses Strep A home testing kits

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An expert has weighed in on whether schools might need to close if the “tripledemic” of scarlet fever, RSV and COVID-19 gets worse. Dr Stephen Griffin, an Associate Professor at the Leeds Institute of Medical Research, has warned the UK could be “sleepwalking into the levels of infection” which could cause serious harm to pupils and staff as a combination of lethal viruses threatens to spread faster.

If cases of all these viruses creep up again, Dr Griffin has warned schools may still be able to go about business as usual, but only if urgent preventative action is taken now.

He told Express.co.uk: “During Autumn and winter there has been an unusually high incidence of influenza across the country, coincident with RSV and SARS-CoV2 waves as well as other respiratory viruses.

“Surprisingly, the level of SARS-CoV2 in schools hasn’t been as dramatic as waves earlier this year, possibly due to unprecedented levels of infections earlier in 2022 and ensuing immunity; of course, this won’t last forever and the new variants are incredibly antibody-evasive. Of course, we’re also on our 6th “winter” in terms of this virus in 22/23. The influenza wave (single) appears to thankfully be winding down.

“The levels of influenza are due to an increased number of susceptible children due to the past years where pandemic protections have literally eliminated influenza from our shores. With more infections comes more serious disease, as well as possible predisposition to group A streptococcus (GAS), for example…virus and bug infections are putting incredible strain on the already buckling NHS.”

This comes as the NHS is currently grappling with one of the toughest periods in its history as a crisis in emergency care unfolds.

As queues of ambulances pile up outside hospitals, while health trusts declare critical incidents. Health Secretary Steve Barlcay has said an increasing case of scarlet fever, Covid and flu is partially to blame.

However, Dr Griffin argued that some of the onus must be on the Government, which he claimed could have helped limit the spread by promoting the right messaging.

He said: “Could more have been done, and are we again sleepwalking into the levels of infection that may compromise both staff and students’ wellbeing to the extent that schools close?

“We knew flu would be bad this year, but no efforts were made to begin annual vaccinations early, to promote their worth, or to broaden their availability. The messaging around COVID vaccinations in children has been woeful, with uptake in under 12s around 10 percent despite excellent efficacy and safety in this age group. Sadly, there is no vaccine for RSV, but as GAS is known to follow viral infections, it is conceivable that the levels of scarlet fever, for example, could have been reduced by preventing the surge in flu cases.”

He also hinted that schools may have not even needed to close during the later stages of the pandemic if the right preventative measures were put in place on time.

Dr Griffin said: “Very little has been put in place to mitigate school transmission of SARS-CoV2 during the pandemic, despite our now-advanced knowledge of how to control aerosol spread and that the same measures are even more effective against viruses that spread primarily by droplets (e.g. influenza).

“Multiple studies showing the positive effects for improved air quality (which also improves cognition and reduces pollution as an added bonus!) and masks in the school setting, particularly from the US.

“Hand washing has a minor role to play re SARS-CoV2, but is highly effective against e.g. flu, norovirus and other school infections. Combined with a tunnel-vision attendance drive and isolation guidance that relies upon symptoms rather than the potential to spread infection, it is little wonder that children and staff are becoming increasingly ill.”

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However, it is not too late. Dr Griffin argued that schools closures, which are a “last resort”, will not have to happen “if action is taken soon and before the issue reaches a critical point”.

He added: “Holidays and closures have provided ample time for improvements to infrastructure to be made, but nothing beyond CO2 meters and a paltry number of filtration units have materialised. Measures like this prevent the need for extreme measures, and to delay their implementation is a false economy over the longer term.”

This also comes after teachers voted to go on strike action following a pay dispute. Schools in England and Wales are gearing up for their first national strike day on February 1. In England, head teachers will need to decide whether their schools should close.

More than 23,000 schools in England and Wales are expected to be hit by the first walkout, with heads given guidance on switching to Covid-style online lessons if they lack enough staff to remain open.

Express.co.uk has approached the Department for Health and Social Care for comment.

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