Tuesday, 23 November 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions (Resumed) - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
59. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills if clarity will be provided in relation to antigen testing in schools and the way it is to be implemented within the school setting; if antigen testing will be used within both primary and secondary settings; the current protocol for same; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [57036/21]
I thank the Minister for coming in and for the continuing support she offers to my office. My question is in regard to whether greater clarity will be provided in regard to antigen testing in schools, the way it is to be implemented within the school setting, if it will be used within both primary and secondary school settings and what protocol will be operated for same.
I appreciate the question. The approach to supporting schools to operate safely during Covid-19 has been to follow and implement public health advice. A range of measures have been implemented across schools, including social distancing, enhanced cleaning and, as the Deputy will be aware, mask wearing in some settings for students and in all settings for staff.
As of 27 September 2021, following a recommendation from NPHET, a decision was taken to cease routine contact tracing of asymptomatic close contacts in children older than three months to under 13 years outside the household setting, including those attending primary educational and childcare settings. Contact tracing continues for those over 13 years, including those attending post-primary schools.
Schools are still required to undertake the two most important actions to prevent the introduction and spread of Covid-19 and other respiratory viruses by ensuring no one with new acute symptoms attends class and that all recommended infection prevention and control measures are in place in line with school Covid response plans.
The Department of Health and the HSE, working in collaboration with the Department of Education, announced last week a programme in which antigen tests will be made available to children in primary schools when a case of Covid-19 arises. Parents and guardians of a primary school child who is a confirmed case of Covid-19 following a PCR test are asked to inform their school principal. The school principal will then inform the parents of other children in the pod of a confirmed case. Where there are two cases in a class in more than one pod in a seven- day period, antigen tests will be offered to every child in the class. Of course, no personal details of the child will be shared. These parents will be provided with the option to receive free antigen tests for their child, which they will be able to order for delivery to their home.
It is important that parents inform principals quickly if a child receives a PCR "detected" test for Covid-19. By doing this, the choice to participate in antigen testing can be offered to other parents quickly. It is important that everyone continues to follow all the public health advice in using this new programme. It is not mandatory for children to participate in antigen testing. Children who are in a pod where a child has tested positive for Covid-19 can continue to attend school whether they participate in antigen testing or not.
The Minister might not be aware but I actually brought antigen testing to NPHET in April or May 2020 and I am somebody who has been promoting this technology for quite a while. The antigen test for infectiousness is very important and we are probably being too slow about rolling it out given the way we are proposing to roll it out. I accept it has limitations in terms of its effectiveness, whether it is in a managed setting or in a less formal setting. However, as I said in the House recently, I have a sister-in-law who works as a school secretary in the UK, where that school is managing antigen testing for all of the school’s 900 pupils and doing it very successfully, with two antigen tests for all school pupils every week. This is something we should be looking at. The problem here is that the horse will have bolted while we are trying to close the stable door in many cases, given what we are proposing. For that reason, although maybe it is difficult considering the Minister is referencing health advice, I suggest that what we are proposing is not significant enough and not often enough.
I thank the Deputy. Again, I appreciate the very positive approach he takes and the generosity with which he shares his experience. In terms of our schools as they exist, comparable to other schools, there are very significant infection prevention and control measures in our schools, and I would venture to say they are not comparable to the lack of them in other jurisdictions.
On antigen testing, the Deputy will appreciate there have been very differing views on antigen tests, their utility and their effectiveness, and all of that. As new evidence becomes available, as we have found throughout Covid, the implementation of measures and the recommendations are altered. We now have the expert view of the CMO who, having reviewed the evidence, believes there is a role for antigen testing in our schools, but he is very clear to say it is merely an additional tool and it will be seen and implemented in that respect. All of the other infection prevention and control measures will continue in schools to support the operation of our schools.
I thank the Minister. I accept that response as the Minister has given it but, as I said, I do not think we are doing enough. I heard the CMO on radio the other morning and, basically, he was not gushing in his praise for what antigen testing can do. I think that is a mistake.
The other thing I would point out to the Minister is that there is a significant cost differential between PCR testing and antigen testing, probably at a rate of 10:1. Therefore, it suggests we could be doing a lot of antigen testing for the large amount of money that we are spending.
I want to offer the Minister one other piece of advice for teachers, if I may. There is now a lot of evidence that supports the supplementation of vitamin D. Despite the fact that, again, NPHET and the CMO will not endorse this, I can tell the Minister most medics in the country are supplementing vitamin D. I would ask that this message goes out to teachers at the moment. We live in a northern latitude country. We are not making enough vitamin D and there is a significant correlation between adverse Covid and low levels of vitamin D. Perhaps that is something the Minister might like to put out as a public health message at some point.
I thank the Deputy. In terms of antigen testing, obviously, it is a public health measure and it is being led by the HSE, but there is a significant body of work under way whereby guidelines will now be made available to school principals, school staff and parents, and that will all be communicated in advance of Monday, 29 November.
How correctly to utilise and use antigen testing will also form part of that communication, which is very important. Particular significance has been given to that by all of the public health officials so that we would know exactly how best to use and utilise them within the schools.
I want to be clear that, as I said previously, all of the measures that are recommended to us by public health have been made available to our schools and we have resourced them. This is an additional tool. We will continue to listen and to work with public health and any further recommendations or requirements that are necessary, we will also implement.