Primary schoolchildren and those in childcare will no longer have to stay at home if they are a close contact of someone with Covid-19.
Children who do not have symptoms are not big spreaders of Covid-19, Dr Abigail Collins, HSE clinical lead on children’s health, said.
Dr Collins said now that Ireland has such a high percentage of its adults fully vaccinated, that it must be considered how “harmful” restrictions on kids are.
However experts have warned this could lead to an increase in the spread of the virus.
Prof Kingston Mills of Trinity College Dublin said: “It will likely lead to a greater spread of Covid-19 in schools. The number of cases in primary schools has been going up already in recent weeks.”
He also said it increased the chance of children unwittingly infecting people in their household who have waning vaccine immunity or are not vaccinated.
Prof Mills, of Trinity’s School of Immunology, was speaking after it was announced that children with no symptoms under 12 years – in childcare facilities, primary school, or social and sporting groups – will no longer need to be automatically tested and restrict their movements if they are a close contact of a pupil or staff member with the virus.
But Dr Collins defended the decision and told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland:
“The balance of the benefits and the harms of excluding well children..from society - it’s not just from school - is something that needs to be addressed and considered.”
Dr Collins said schools are still a “low-risk” community setting, with much lower levels than other settings and that the HSE and Nphet are thinking about what they are “trying to achieve” going forward by relaxing measures around close contacts in primary schools.
The public health consultant said the household setting remains the “highest risk setting” and if children are close contacts in that setting, then it is important they stay home, but schools are not as high risk so close contacts in the classroom can stay in school so long as they do not have symptoms.
Dr Collins said the HSE will use “markers in the community” as a means of assessing virus levels in primary school pupils as “they are a part of their community and we will see changes in other age groups in response to this”.
“There are lots of ways we can look at information and patterns of what’s happening on the ground and that’s what we will do,” Dr Collins said.
The change, which will apply from Monday, will mean those without symptoms will no longer have to restrict their movements at home for up to 10 days until they get a clear test.
However, figures obtained by the Irish Independent show that 5.2pc of primary school children – one in 20 – who were close contacts in the last seven days ended up testing positive for the virus.
They had two Covid-19 tests and stayed at home for 10 days before going back to class.
The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation warned it is too early to drop contact tracing in primary schools and predicted it could lead to closures by Halloween.
It comes as the number of school outbreaks of Covid-19 more than doubled, reaching 90 last week. They included 412 linked pupils and staff.
The majority of outbreaks, 78, were in primary schools. But public health officials said the number of children involved in the outbreaks, where the virus was passed on, was low.
Since the reopening of schools, HSE public health teams have been under extreme pressure amid complaints by principals that it takes days for them to arrive in some cases to carry out a risk assessment after a child tests positive.
But chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan, who recommended the change, said: “We have been closely monitoring the incidence of Covid-19 and are assured the reopening of schools has not led to an increase in transmission among school-going children or more widely across the population.”
He said that, given the importance of education for children, now is the right time to change the approach to the management of the virus in schools.
Health Minister Stephen Donnelly, who supports the switch, pointed out that if a child under 12 is a close contact in a household – as opposed to school – they still need to restrict their movements and be tested. Dr Holohan said this is because of a higher risk of transmission in households.
The new advice will stress that any child who has possible symptoms of Covid-19 should self-isolate and have a test.
Vulnerable children who are in special education will still need to stay at home as a precaution.
Asked whether a runny nose alone is cause to keep a child at home from school, the HSE said on its own it is not enough – but if a child is off form they should stay at home