Following the resurgence of the COVID-19 epidemic in the UK in late 2020 and the emergence of the alpha (also known as B117) variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, a third national lockdown was imposed from January 4, 2021. Following the decline of COVID-19 cases over the remainder of January 2021, the question of when and how to reopen schools became an increasingly pressing one in early 2021. This study models the impact of a partial national lockdown with social distancing measures enacted in communities and workplaces under different strategies of reopening schools from March 8, 2021, and compares it to the impact of continual full national lockdown remaining until April 19, 2021. We used our previously published agent-based model, Covasim, to model the emergence of the alpha variant over September 1, 2020, to January 31, 2021, in presence of Test, Trace and Isolate (TTI) strategies. We extended the model to incorporate the impacts of the roll-out of a two-dose vaccine against COVID-19, with 200,000 daily vaccine doses prioritised by age starting with people 75 years or older, assuming vaccination offers a 95% reduction in disease acquisition risk and a 30% reduction in transmission risk. We used the model, calibrated until January 25, 2021, to simulate the impact of a full national lockdown (FNL) with schools closed until April 19, 2021, versus four different partial national lockdown (PNL) scenarios with different elements of schooling open: 1) staggered PNL with primary schools and exam-entry years (years 11 and 13) returning on March 8, 2021 and the rest of the schools years on March 15, 2020; 2) full-return PNL with both primary and secondary schools returning on March 8, 2021; 3) primary-only PNL with primary schools and exam critical years (years 11 and 13) going back only on March 8, 2021 with the rest of the secondary schools back on April 19, 2021 and 4) part-rota PNL with both primary and secondary schools returning on March 8, 2021 with primary schools remaining open continuously but secondary schools on a two-weekly rota-system with years alternating between a fortnight of face-to-face and remote learning until April 19, 2021. Across all scenarios, we projected the number of new daily cases, cumulative deaths and effective reproduction number R until April 30, 2021. Our calibration across different scenarios is consistent with alpha variant being around 60% more transmissible than the wild type. We find that strict social distancing measures, i.e. national lockdowns, were essential in containing the spread of the virus and controlling hospitalisations and deaths during January and February 2021. We estimated that a national lockdown over January and February 2021 would reduce the number of cases by early March to levels similar to those seen in October 2020, with R also falling and remaining below 1 over this period. We estimated that infections would start to increase when schools reopened, but found that if other parts of society remain closed, this resurgence would not be sufficient to bring R above 1. Reopening primary schools and exam critical years only or having primary schools open continuously with secondary schools on rotas was estimated to lead to lower increases in cases and R than if all schools opened. Without an increase in vaccination above the levels seen in January and February, we estimate that R could have increased above 1 following the reopening of society, simulated here from April 19, 2021. Our findings suggest that stringent measures were integral in mitigating the increase in cases and bringing R below 1 over January and February 2021. We found that it was plausible that a PNL with schools partially open from March 8, 2021, and the rest of the society remaining closed until April 19, 2021, would keep R below 1, with some increase evident in infections compared to continual FNL until April 19, 2021. Reopening society in mid-April, without an increase in vaccination levels, could push R above 1 and induce a surge in infections, but the effect of vaccination may be able to control this in future depending on the transmission blocking properties of the vaccines.

Cite as

Panovska-Griffiths, J., Stuart, R., Kerr, C., Rosenfield, K., Mistry, D., Waites, W., Klein, D., Bonell, C. & Viner, R. 2022, 'Modelling the impact of reopening schools in the UK in early 2021 in the presence of the alpha variant and with roll-out of vaccination against SARS-CoV-2', Journal of Mathematical Analysis and Applications, article no: 126050. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jmaa.2022.126050

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Last updated: 15 November 2022
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