Teachers should be prioritised for booster jabs and children aged over five should be vaccinated, scientists say, as the rapid spread of omicron threatens mass school closures in the new year.
Schools in London, West Bromwich and Chester have been closed in recent days due to outbreaks, two of which were linked to omicron.
And 208,000 pupils in English state schools were absent at the end of last month due to Covid-related reasons, according to government estimates.
Experts fear there could be a million omicron infections by the end of the month, and scientists argue schools need to be better protected after Christmas to avoid disruption and keep pupils and teachers safe.
Health secretary Sajid Javid has refused to rule out school closures in January, saying at the weekend “there are no guarantees”.
Deepti Gurdasani, a clinical epidemiologist at Queen Mary University London, said: “We can expect rapid transmission within schools, which is likely to cause mass disruption, and potentially school closures unless the government takes urgent action.”
Kit Yates, a senior lecturer in mathematical sciences at the University of Bath, said improving ventilation, installing air filters, requiring mask-wearing and “crucially offering the vaccination to our young people” could all help to reduce transmission.
“These are all things that could and should have been done earlier in the pandemic,” he added.
Azeem Majeed, a professor of primary care and public health at Imperial College London, said the government needed to ensure that all teachers and other school staff were fully vaccinated with three doses.
The government has accelerated England’s booster programme, with the aim of offering a third dose to all over-18s by the end of the year. In a televised address on Sunday night, Boris Johnson said he was launching a “national mission” to get everyone jabbed.
But amid lengthy queues outside walk-in centres and technical issues with the NHS vaccine booking site, as people rushed to get boosters, Prof Majeed said it could be necessary to prioritise vaccinations for school staff to ensure they were fully protected before the next term started.
The Christmas break is expected to act as a “firebreaker”, reducing the high prevalence of Covid among children, “but the question is for how long,” said Irene Petersen, an epidemiologist at University College London.
Until vaccination coverage among children and young teenagers is improved, she added, it “seems likely that many classrooms may be empty for a while”.
Only 45 per cent of those aged 12 to 15 had received a vaccine by 10 December, according to official data. “Therefore, the best way we can protect the children, schools and their families is to get as many children as possible vaccinated as soon as possible,” Prof Petersen said.
Some scientists have argued the UK needs to start rolling out vaccines among 5- to 11-year-olds. “The UK is now lagging behind many other countries in doing this,” said Prof Majeed.
Britain’s medicines regulator has yet to authorise the Pfizer vaccine for use in this age group, although the the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation is willing to recommend a rollout once the green light is given, The Independent understands.
The EU has already approved the Pfizer jab for 5- to 11-year olds, and in the US more than 2.6 million children in this age group have received a first dose, according to White House estimates.
“We are entering the omicron wave with an already very high infection rate in children (one in 25 in primary- and secondary-school children) with very little protection for them,” said Dr Gurdasani.
“Schools have little or no mitigations compared with most countries in western Europe, and we have one of the lowest rates of adolescent vaccination in England.”
Dr Yates said: “If, in the end, the high rates of omicron transmission in schools results in school closures, then the government will have no one to blame but themselves – and parents and wider society should be rightly angry about that.”
Saul Faust, professor of paediatric immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Southampton, said closing schools should be the last resort.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies