Southwark Council’s head of children’s services has called for the government to put more air filtration systems in schools across the country to help stop the spread of Covid-19 – after her own young daughter was hospitalised.
Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi has promised 7,000 air filtration machines in classrooms in a bid to slow the spread of the Omicron variant.
But Cllr Jasmine Ali said in a letter to Zahawi that this was “insufficient” – pointing out that there are 24,000 schools in the UK. Her estimate is that it would cost the taxpayer £200 million to roll the machines out in schools nationwide.
She said: “Given that the Omicron variant of SARS-Cov-2 is now spreading very widely in the community, it is to be expected that airborne transmission within schools will be extensive in the coming weeks.
“Opening windows will help, but not all classrooms have windows that open, and in the cold weather it will not always be possible to open windows.”
A recent study found by scientists at Cambridge University found that air filtration systems could be a “scalable” solution to the problem of the virus spreading quickly in hospitals.
Cllr Ali, who has been in contact with one of the lead authors, called the study “another great British scientific and medical breakthrough, to be both celebrated and implemented”.
The machines should be relatively simple to use, she added, and schools would need two for an average-sized classroom.
Cllr Ali said that the machines would be cost-effective, because they would help keep children in schools, the schools themselves open, and parents at work because they would be self-isolating less often.
It comes after Cllr Ali’s own ten-year-old daughter was hospitalised with the symptoms of the post-Covid condition Paediatric Inflammatory Multisystem Syndrome (PIMS) before Christmas, although a diagnosis was inconclusive.
She was in the high-dependency unit at King’s College Hospital, an experience that Cllr Ali called “terrifying”, although her daughter had “fantastic” care and is much better now.
A spokesperson for the central government’s department of education declined to comment on the specifics of Cllr Ali’s letter.
Education secretary Zahawi said: “Being in the classroom is undoubtedly the very best place for children and I’m looking forward to welcoming pupils back next week to continue their face-to-face learning, which is so important for their education and wellbeing.
“There is no doubt that the Omicron variant presents challenges but the entire education sector has responded with a Herculean effort, and for that I thank each and every one of you.
“The Prime Minister and I have been clear that education is our number one priority. These measures will bolster our support schools as we do everything in our power to minimise disruption.”
The 7,000 air filtration systems are being installed alongside other “temporary” measures in schools to help slow the spread of Covid – including getting children in Year 7 and above to wear face masks in classrooms. This will last until January 26, when the government plans to review all existing Covid rules.
Omicron continues to spread widely, although there are signs that it may have slowed in Southwark. The number of new cases in the borough was down more than 21 per cent this week. Southwark also ranked ninth among London boroughs for new infections, down from third before Christmas.