Pupils and school staff in Wales have been advised to exercise caution amidst a recent uptick in Covid-19 cases, according to Dr. Chris Williams, Consultant Epidemiologist for Public Health Wales (PHW). This increase has been described as “small to moderate” since the beginning of the school term.
Official guidance from the Welsh Government emphasises the importance of education and suggests that pupils with mild Covid symptoms should still attend school. While some schools have reported instances of staff and pupils falling ill, these cases have not reached levels that would significantly disrupt education, school leaders have confirmed.
As of now, no cases of the new BA.2.86 variant have been detected in Wales. However, PHW is encouraging all eligible individuals to avail themselves of Covid and flu vaccinations, particularly with the approaching winter season.
With the conclusion of community and population-level testing, PHW now relies on broader indicators to monitor the spread of Covid, including hospitalisations, mortality rates, vaccination rates, and reports of respiratory illnesses from the NHS.
Dr. Williams explained, “This information is telling us that there is a small to moderate increase in Covid-19 in Wales at the moment, which is to be expected as schools return and the summer comes to an end. Although there is some indication that the increase in cases and admissions is slowing.”
Currently, the XBB variants and EG.1.5 are the most common strains in Wales. Nevertheless, Dr. Williams stressed that this information is continually reviewed, and there have been no reported cases of the BA.2.86 variant in Wales.
Dr. Williams provided practical advice for schools and the wider community, saying, “If you feel unwell with respiratory symptoms consistent with Covid-19, you should do as you would with any respiratory infection. Stay home and avoid contact with others, get plenty of rest, and drink water to stay hydrated. You can use medications such as paracetamol to help with your symptoms. Additionally, maintain good hygiene practices by coughing or sneezing into a tissue and frequent handwashing to prevent the spread of germs. Special care should be taken around vulnerable or elderly individuals.”
Highlighting the importance of vaccination, he added, “The most important thing you can do is to take up the offer of a Covid-19 and flu vaccine if you are offered it. GPs and health boards will contact those who are eligible with details of when and where they can be vaccinated. People are advised to come forward as soon as possible once they have been contacted to receive their vaccination.”
Responding to the situation, a spokesperson for the Welsh Government cited previous guidance, emphasizing that attending school is crucial for children’s development, health, and well-being. They noted that children and young people with mild symptoms, such as a runny nose, sore throat, or slight cough, can continue attending school, provided they are otherwise well.
Local education authorities are encouraging schools to adhere to the latest guidance and are leaving it to individual schools to determine whether to provide remote work for pupils with symptoms who are staying at home.
While some councils like Blanau Gwent Council have reported low numbers of staff affected by Covid and no immediate concerns, others like Cardiff Council and Vale of Glamorgan Council have advised schools to focus on ventilation and following standard absence procedures to minimise the risk of transmission.
Eithne Hughes, director of the Association of School and College Leaders Cymru, has not raised significant concerns about staff or pupil absences due to Covid or other illnesses at this stage.