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Epidemics expert questions Marshall's schools advice

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An Australian epidemiologist recognised for her work combating Ebola virus says South Australian parents not working in essential services should take their children out of school, contradicting Premier Steven Marshall’s strong health advice to the public yesterday.

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At a press conference yesterday, Marshall told reporters “students must remain at school” in the wake of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak.

“Children should go to school, here in SA and around the country,” he said.

“Not to do so doesn’t diminish the risk – it increases the risk and reduces our response as a nation to tackle the coronavirus.”

He said that advice from chief medical officers from across the country to the national emergency cabinet was “unequivocal and there was no discussions or dissent from any of the states or commonwealth … we are as one – we want students to go to school”.

At about the same time yesterday, Dr Kamalini Lokuge OAM was speaking at a National Press Club forum on COVID-19 in Canberra.

Lokuge, of the National Centre for Epidemiology at the Australian National University, is a medical doctor, an epidemiologist and a senior research fellow leading the ANU’s Humanitarian Health Research Initiative.

She was involved in curbing the spread of Ebola across West Africa and has worked with Doctors Without Borders, the World Health Organisation and the International Committee of the Red Cross on humanitarian crises across the globe.

Her message to the forum was that schools should play a part in social distancing, with some caveats.

“Those people who can take their kids out of school, without having to leave them with grandparents, should,” she said.

She said there were “some people who need to send their kids to school – our essential workers; our doctors; our nurses; those who supply our food, our electricity – they need to be able to send their kids to school.

“And if we reduce the number of kids in school, we reduce what we call the force of infection in schools.

“So, kids are going to have less contact with other kids and therefore there (are at) less risk of those kids, who do need to be in school, passing infection onto their family.”

In an interview with InDaily this morning, Lokuge stood by her comments, stressing that the Australia’s education system should be preparing itself to deliver schooling mostly online.

“This is my view as an epidemiologist,” she said.

“We need to do a whole range of social distancing measures that are going to be very difficult for the community.

“While transmission is very low in the community it’s okay (that Australian children are still in school) but if we get widespread community transmission, schools are going to be another point … of infection between people and between households.

“Australia is a world leader in remote teaching … we need to develop strategies for online teaching as soon as possible.”

She argued that it was not a question of whether or not to close schools altogether – because the children of parents working in essential services needed to stay in the classroom – but rather a question of how to prevent transmission as much as possible with social distancing measures, and that means withdrawing most other kids from class attendance.

She said parents thinking of taking their children out of school should make sure that they are not exposing them to others at higher risk of COVID-19, such as the elderly or people with compromised immune or respiratory systems.

And “make sure they are provided with a good learning environment,” she added.

During his press conference yesterday, Marshall noted that “parents have the right to make their own decisions” but insisted they also had an obligation to provide adequate education during the layoff period, urging parents to understand that if students were taken out of the school system “they are not in for one or two weeks, they’re not in for one or two months – the expectation is this [situation] will remain in place for six months or more”.

“This is not political, it’s not ideological – it’s an evidence-based decision,” he added.

A spokesperson for Marshall told InDaily this morning that the Premier was acting on the advice of the country’s leading health experts when he recommended students stay in school.

“The Premier could not be clearer,” the spokesperson said.

“We are acting on the very clear advice from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee on this matter – who are the leading experts on infection control.”

The AHPPC is the key decision-making committee for health emergencies in Australia, comprised of all state and territory Chief Health Officers, and is chaired by Australian Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy.

Marshall’s comments were in line with those of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who told Sky News yesterday afternoon: “There’s only one reason your kids shouldn’t be going to school and that is if they are unwell.”

On Tuesday, The Guardian reported that almost 2500 doctors have signed a letter to Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt, saying schools and public places should be closed around the country in an effort to contain the coronavirus.

Led by Dr Hemant Garg, the letter states doctors are “dismayed at the disconnect between the actions being taken within the medical community and the recommendation for actions being passed on to the general population”, according to the report.

“We should immediately recommend a three to four week closure of schools, cultural and religious places including places of worship, gyms and leisure centres, pubs, bars, theatres, cinemas and concert halls,” the letter states.

“This would allow a steady declaration of cases of coronavirus to present to hospitals and fever clinics as their symptomatic phase develops.”

However, South Australia’s acting Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael Cusack told FIVEaa radio this morning that “in South Australia at the moment it is the right thing for us to be keeping our schools open”.

He said the state’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr Nicola Spurrier had been working with her colleagues interstate “and together they’ve been looking with scientists and international evidence and where things have worked well, where things have worked less well – and on the basis of all the evidence, keeping schools open and children going to school is the right thing for us to be doing at this point in time.

“The World Health Organisation did a detailed review (where) they looked at something like 55,000 cases of coronavirus and where children had the disease they had almost universally picked the disease up at home from a close family member as opposed to at school,” he said.

“There’s no doubt that children can get the disease, but in terms of the mode of transmission that does not appear to be through the school.”

At a press conference this afternoon, Australia’s deputy Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly said Australia would not be closing schools at this stage because “we are looking for a proportionate response that is sustainable across several months”.

“At the moment for us that is not necessary in relation to schools.”

He added that there was international evidence that children did not appear to be transmitting the virus to other children, but rather that they were getting the virus from their relatives.

Meanwhile, several countries have been implementing strict lockdowns in response to the pandemic.

Britain has ordered schools, nurseries and colleges to close for millions of children until further notice after criticism that the government was being too slow to react to the spread of coronavirus.

The UK had previously resisted pressure to follow the lead of Italy, France, and Spain, saying that school closures would not halt the outbreak and would deprive the country of key public sector workers.

Most British schools will close from Friday, although some will be asked to stay open to support the children of essential workers like health care employees, UK education minister Gavin Williamson told parliament.

“I know the situation has become increasingly challenging. I said before that if the science and the advice changed such that keeping schools open would no longer be in the best interests of children and teachers that we would act,” he said.

“We are now at that stage. The spike of the virus is increasing at a faster pace than anticipated.”

The shutting of so many schools will have huge economic and social repercussions for the world’s fifth-biggest economy, altering the lives of almost 9 million British children and force parents to stay home from work to look after them.

– with AAP

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