Health experts urge parents to keep children off school if they are unwell

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Health experts have urged parents to try to keep their children off school if they feel unwell to reduce pressure on the NHS. Hospitals have experienced a dramatic surge in cases of flu in the last month and there has also been an increase in Covid cases. High rates of flu and Covid are contributing to a ‘twindemic’ and there has also been a sharp rise in cases of scarlet fever and strep A this winter compared to previous years.

Guidelines from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) encourage parents to keep their children at home if they feel ill and they have symptoms, including a fever. The advice comes as children prepare to return to school and nurseries reopen after the Christmas break. The agency warned that high levels of infection are likely to continue for some time and case numbers are expected to increase in the coming weeks as people go back to work and schools, universities and nurseries welcome children and students back. 

Professor Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser at the UKHSA, said that it was important to recognise the risks of high infection rates and take steps to lower risks. Parents should try to keep their children off school or nursery if they have a fever and adults can also protect themselves and others by staying at home if they are sick and wearing a mask in crowded places. Prof Hopkins also outlined preventative measures, which can help to reduce the spread of seasonal illnesses and Covid-19, including washing hands frequently and using tissues to catch droplets released when sneezing and coughing. Prof Hopkins also issued a fresh plea for those who are eligible for the flu jab to have the vaccine. Uptake among young children has been low, but the vaccine is still available free of charge to all primary school children, some children at secondary school and toddlers. 

Parents can access information about the flu jab online via the NHS website or by calling their GP surgery or visiting a local pharmacy. The flu jab is also available to pregnant women, all over 50s and people who have underlying health conditions that put them at risk of severe flu symptoms. In some cases, the flu jab is also provided free of charge for people who live with vulnerable individuals. In early December, around 1.4 million people had Covid, according to ONS (Office for National Statistics) data but numbers are expected to rise due to social mixing over Christmas.

Hospital admissions for flu have soared in recent weeks and numbers are now at the highest level since winter 2017/2018. There was an increase of more than 3,000 patients per day between November and the end of December 2022 in England. Parents have also been urged to be vigilant amid a spike in cases of strep A, a bacterial infection that can cause severe symptoms in some children. Strep A usually has mild effects, but it can cause scarlet fever and in rare cases, it can be fatal. This is known as invasive group A streptococcal disease (GAS). Absence rates in schools in England rose to 7.5% in the week commencing December 5th. This represents a steep increase from 2.6% in September. 

Symptoms of flu in children include a fever (a temperature of over 38 degrees), lethargy, muscle aches and pains, a sore throat, a dry cough, a runny nose, generally feeling unwell and ear pain. Most children will not need treatment in hospital for flu, but parents are urged to seek urgent advice if their child experiences breathing difficulties, they become very sluggish or they have a very high temperature that is not responding to painkillers. For milder symptoms, doctors recommend plenty of rest and fluids and over the counter medication. As flu is a virus, antibiotics are not an effective treatment.
Advice from the UKHSA has been welcomed by the NAHT, the union for school leaders. James Bowen, director of policy, said that the advice provides “clarity” for parents and teachers at a time when there is an “unusually high level of illness around.” Most schools, Mr Bowen explained, already have procedures in place that encourage parents to keep children who have a fever off school.