Swine flu: School closures declared 'unlikely'

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School closures in the autumn to curb the number of swine flu infections are unlikely at the moment and would have an "extremely disruptive" effect on society, the Chief Medical Officer said today.



Sir Liam Donaldson said the possibility of school closures would be kept under review but in past experience - such as in the West Midlands - this had not been effective at controlling the virus.

"I think it would take a lot for us to move in that direction, it would be extremely disruptive to society - when would you open them again, given that flu might be around for several months," he told GMTV.

"If we look at what we did in the West Midlands for example, where we did very aggressively initially close schools, treat people with Tamiflu who didn't have symptoms but were contacts of cases, eventually it broke out of the box and spread more widely.

"I think we will obviously keep all of these things under review as we do with any scientific advice, but at the moment I think it is unlikely."

He was speaking as ministers were asked to consider closing schools this autumn to help curb the number of swine flu infections.

Amid predictions that the number of cases will soar as the school holidays come to an end, two infection experts have argued that a school closure programme could "break the chains of transmission" and buy time to produce a vaccine.

Professor Neil Ferguson and Dr Simon Cauchemez, from the department of infectious disease epidemiology at Imperial College London, also cited studies showing that closing schools at the height of a flu pandemic could cut the number of cases by up to 45 per cent.

"The (swine flu) pandemic could become more severe, and so the current cautious approach of not necessarily recommending school closure in Europe and North America might need reappraisal in the autumn," they said in the paper, published in the leading medical journal The Lancet.



The scientists quoted a recent French study which suggested that "proactively" closing schools could reduce flu cases by 13 per cent to 17 per cent overall, and by between 38 per cent and 45 per cent during the outbreak's peak.

The report said as children appeared to be more susceptible to the current bug than adults, there could be "strong arguments" for ministers to revisit their policy on school closures.

"It is... hoped that closure of schools during the pandemic might break the chains of transmission, with the following potential benefits: reducing the total number of cases; slowing the epidemic to give more time for vaccine production; and reducing the incidence of cases at the peak of the epidemic, limiting both the stress on healthcare systems and peak absenteeism in the general population, and thus increasing community-wide resilience," the researchers said.

Schools Secretary Ed Balls told The Guardian that there was "no longer" a case for closing schools to contain the infection's spread as the virus was already established in the community.

But he added: "We will be monitoring the situation closely over the school holidays and will review the evidence in late August."

Sir Liam said there had been "lots of work" to ensure the NHS had the capacity to deal with swine flu.

Yesterday Health Secretary Andy Burnham said the National Pandemic Flu Service for England would be up and running by the end of the week "subject to testing" as he said the NHS had had dealt "fantastically well" with the virus.

He urged the country to "have confidence" in the handling of swine flu, saying preparations for tackling the illness were the best in the world.

Mr Burnham also urged a sense of "perspective" on the virus.

He said: "It really is important to keep everything in perspective. This is a mild virus... and there have been thousands of people already who have had it and made a quick recovery.

"We have got the best preparations in place to deal with this and we are dealing with it fantastically well.

"The NHS is a wonderfully resilient organisation and it has absorbed the extra pressure it has been under. GPs, in particular, have done a fantastic job around the country.

"Our plans are - according to the World Health Organisation, not me - the best preparations in the world."

Mr Burnham told the Commons the National Pandemic Flu Service for England, a telephone and internet-based service will enable people to get a diagnosis of swine flu, obtain a unique reference number, and gain access to Tamiflu.

People will be diagnosed over the telephone or can follow a questionnaire on the internet which will give them a diagnosis.

The Health Protection Agency (HPA) estimates there were 55,000 new cases of swine flu in England the week before last, including people visiting GPs and those who are looking after themselves at home.

The total number of deaths linked to swine flu now stands at 29 in the UK.

Officials have warned that visitors to a number of countries face strict screening procedures as the illness spreads.

This was demonstrated in China, where more than 100 British schoolchildren and teachers were placed in quarantine in a Beijing hotel after eight teenagers in the group were diagnosed with swine flu.

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