Virologist says return of schools has driven Northern Ireland's Covid spike 4 weeks ago

Virologist says return of schools has driven Northern Ireland's Covid spike

Extra restrictions are due to come into effect in the North from Tuesday evening.

A virologist in Northern Ireland has said the recent spike in cases is being driven by the return of schools and universities. However, almost half of all Covid-19 tests in the 0-19 age group have been undertaken since schools returned.

Extra restrictions are due to come into effect in Northern Ireland from 6pm on Tuesday (22 September), after over 1,000 cases were reported in the last seven days. Schools returned in the last week of August for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic.

Speaking to RTÉ Radio One's Morning Ireland, Dr. David Courtney, a virologist at Queen's University in Belfast, said that the recent spike in cases was likely to happen with increased movement as restrictions were eased.

"We always knew that this was going to happen, I think it was very expected," he said.

"We were opening up the schools and universities, as needed to be done, and this is just going to be a see-saw approach where you’re going to have to roll with the punches and you’re going to have to potentially restrict other parts of your society as you start to open up other parts, such as the schools. I think it’s totally expected, but hopefully this (the new restrictions) helps keep a handle on it."

When asked what he believed to be the driving factor behind the recent surge in cases, Dr. Courtney says it is likely to be attributable to the recent return to education.

"To be honest, as I said, it does seem to be the opening of schools and universities," Courtney added.

"We know that the numbers… Over the entire pandemic, under 18s have only really accounted for about 10% of positive cases in the North, but over the last seven days that’s now at 25%, and we have to assume that that’s simply coming from a lot more interaction of young children under 18 at their schools."

It is important to note that almost half of all Covid-19 tests carried out in the 0-19 age group in Northern Ireland since the beginning of the pandemic have happened since the last week of August. There were 26,761 0-19 year-olds tested since 31 August, 49% of the 54,204 total since February.

Public health officials in the Republic Ireland have insisted that schools are not a significant driver of the spread of Covid-19 in the community, as schools returned here in recent weeks. Last week, the HSE said there have been a total of 35 cases of Covid-19 identified, related to 13 outbreaks, and that students at 96 schools have been tested since the return in late August.