Schools urged to help curb the spread of swine flu

Ministers today urged schools to adopt basic hygiene measures to help curb the spread of swine flu prior to an expected second wave of the virus this autumn.

During a visit to a primary school in Hackney, London, Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, said policy had moved away from closing schools to minimise disruption and towards preventative hygiene steps by pupils and teachers.

Mr Balls visited Tyssen Community School in Stamford Hill alongside Health Secretary Andy Burnham and chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson.

He said: "During the early days of swine flu back in the spring, the best medical advice to us was to close the schools to stop the spread of the infection, but over the summer we have been monitoring this closely and the chief medical officer's advice to us is that now because the virus has been quite mild and because of the number of cases, closing schools does not do any good in terms of stopping the spread of disease and would obviously be very disruptive.

"The best advice is to keep schools open, but if your child is showing symptoms of swine flu, the best thing to do is keep them at home and either ring your GP or go onto the special helpline or website that we have to get the best advice.

He added: "It is important that in schools - and this is what we are seeing today - that children are washing their hands regularly and if they sneeze they are covering their mouths.

"Basic hygiene is a way of stopping the spread of disease over the coming weeks and months. If the medical advice changes at any point, we will say so immediately to teachers and parents. At all times it will be the safety of children that comes first.

"At the moment, the best advice is keep the schools open, keep the children learning, teach the children about hygiene and if you suspect swine flu keep them off school."

Tyssen Community School experienced approximately 60 cases of swine flu among children and staff between mid-June and August this year.

Headteacher Sue Windross said its hygiene measures included regular handwashing by its 470 pupils and the use of anti-bacterial gels by the 120 staff, plus letters to parents.

Sir Liam said hygiene measures in schools could combat the passing on of the virus among the young as they returned to school for the new term.

He said: "Children are sometimes described as the 'super spreaders of flu'. We saw with the first peak that we had during June and July very high rates among children, particularly young children.

"All the research evidence shows that if children are educated to cover their nose and mouth when they cough or sneeze and then wash their hands, it helps a great deal to slow the spread of infection.

"Children we have been talking to today and their parents have got that message. The young children have very high levels of knowledge about this. There's been an excellent programme of educating them by the headteacher and other teachers and that is what we want to see around the country."

Referring to current swine flu infection rates, he added: "We are down to quite low levels now. Last week it was around 4,000 people around the country, at its peak in early July we were seeing well over 100,000 people every week, that was just the people we knew about who had contacted their GP.

"There would be many more people who had the infection who did not come forward. We have had a sizeable first peak, but we are expecting a bigger second peak during the normal flu season which is just about to start."

Britain, he said, had a large stockpile of Tamiflu, one of the biggest in the world, for use by people experiencing symptoms, particularly those with underlying health problems.

The swine flu vaccine is also expected to be ready to use by this autumn.

During the visit, Sir Liam and the ministers visited the on-site children's centre.

Mr Burnham said: "Recently the number of swine flu cases has come down, but there really can't be any complacency. As we look towards an expected second wave of flu in the winter, we want to hold up examples of good practice about how at a local level we can all take steps to minimise the spread of swine flu.

"This school has very good policies in place for hygiene throughout the school. It is in an area which did face particular pressure back in the summer during the first wave of swine flu cases and it dealt with it very well, without having to close."