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Our children are sitting ducks *Corrected Article with FullFact link*

Louise Hyde is a GP in Wales and DAUK committee member @DAUK_GP @MeddygLou

This article has been corrected and updated with a link to data provided by FullFact (See bottom of article for full details)

Children are not meant to die, so when people say the risk of a child dying of Covid-19 is very small, then yes, it absolutely should be.

Unfortunately, we’ve been letting Covid spread quite freely in the UK, especially through schools.

My child probably won’t die of Covid, and yours probably won’t either, but in the next few days, someone’s child might.

We actively take precautions to prevent all of the commonest causes of child death, both as individuals and collectively.

Suffocation causes similar numbers of deaths to Covid, but no parent would leave plastic bags lying about, and almost all bags come with little holes punched in the bottom, and a written reminder to keep out of reach of children.

When it comes to Covid, though, the measures we had in place through the first two waves have largely been removed. Most adults in the UK are protected by at least two doses of vaccine, but most children are not. Masks stopped being required in English secondary schools in May, at roughly the same time that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) were concluding that “there was a low risk of child-to-child transmission”. Measures such as bubbles, distancing and isolation of covid contacts have also been removed or weakened since then, with predictable results.

For most of last term school aged children had the highest prevalence of Covid, and whenever schools are open, the rates tend to rise.

With the arrival of Omicron in the lead up to Christmas, schoolchildren were overtaken by young adults, extending up to the middle aged. Now that the new term has started, older age groups seem to have peaked, but schoolchildren and preschoolers continue to rise.

It has become clear that JCVI guidance suggesting the vaccine would only have minimal benefits for children was based on false assumptions. Children can and do transmit the virus when basic mitigation measures are removed.

Similar patterns were seen in South Africa and New York, but it is still too early to say whether this increase in hospitalisation will translate into increased child mortality rates. The rates of Long Covid from Omicron are also still unknown.

Currently the UK lags behind similar nations in vaccinating children. The JCVI was slow to authorise vaccination of 12-15 year olds, initially only permitting a single vaccine.

The MHRA has approved a reduced dose vaccine for 5-11 year olds, but the JCVI are currently limiting its use to children who are Clinically Extremely Vulnerable (CEV) or have CEV members in their household. Even these few are struggling to actually access the vaccine, with reports of some families taking their children abroad to receive it. In contrast to the original adult vaccination campaign, and the booster programme this winter, vaccination of children has remained painfully slow. If vaccines are to be our main defence against covid, we need to step up the pace.

With school transmission driving the pandemic during term time, the rates of covid in parents and grandparents also tend to rise. The vaccine is very effective for most people, but it has a small but significant failure rate and not everyone can or will have it. If we choose to rely on vaccines alone, with rates this high, the virus will find those who
are susceptible.

For children with a clinically vulnerable parent or grandparent, the worry that they might bring Covid into the home is often their biggest fear. Children naturally tend to assume that bad things happening in the adult world are their fault, even in situations where there is far less logic to suggest it. In the UK, there are already an estimated eight thousand children orphaned by Covid-19. Those who argue that being in school is the most important factor for our children’s mental health are neglecting to consider these children. There is a huge difference between children being safely in school with multiple layers of mitigation measures in place, and children being in school where they are exposed to the virus with no protection.

The measures we need to make schools safe are quite simple:

  • Fast vaccine roll-out for all children aged 5 and up.
  • Acceptance that airborne spread of the virus is significant, ventilation, FFP2 masks, CO2 monitors and HEPA filters.
  • Awareness that close contact also plays a part, with physical distancing where possible.
  • Awareness that the number of people you transmit to depends on how many people you share air with, bringing back bubbles, avoiding assemblies, and a return to fully isolating cases and contacts.
  • Acknowledging that children are connected to the rest of the community too, and a return to similar measures across the rest of society to get background Covid rates down.
  • Perhaps the most complex measure, the one we are least likely to achieve, is a change to the public messaging about Covid in the UK. Because infections really do matter. We are all connected, and we do have a responsibility towards each other, whether we like it or not. My choices and actions could have unknown consequences for you, or for someone else, somewhere.

Consequences may be unknown, but they are not unforeseen. And in the case of infectious diseases, even a small change can make a very big difference over time, so every little helps. The actions that are in our power are smaller and simpler than those our government could have chosen, but they are still significant.

Open a few windows, wear a mask, keep your distance, stay home when you’re ill. You’ll never find out, but your actions could avoid harm to a child.

Editorial note: This article was corrected on 5th February 2022 and misleading figures were removed after the figure of 133 child deaths was clarified as including 18 and 19 year olds by a FullFact article. We apologise for not spotting this mistake and correcting it sooner. We would like to thank FullFact for this and the work that they do and Leo Benedictus who wrote the article. We would also like to thank Samar Razaq and Helen Salisbury for independently contacting us about these figures. We welcome comments and critique on all our articles by letter, email and (ideally) the response box below all BJGP Life articles. We encourage our readers to read the FullFact article here https://fullfact.org/online/133-covid-deaths-children/

*References and Further reading

  1. Mortality data comes from the Office of National Statistics and can be viewed at www.ons.gov.uk
  2. Prevalence data comes from Independent SAGE https://www.independentsage.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/WeeklySlides_14January2022.pdf
  3. Data about child hospitalisations comes from Long Covid Kids https://www.longcovidkids.org/post/child-covid-19-cases-long-covid-hospital-admissions-deaths-16th-january-2022
  4. Minutes of the JCVI can be viewed at https://www.gov.uk/government/groups/joint-committee-on-vaccination-and-immunisation

Featured image by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

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Interesting article. You mentioned 133 children have died as a result of Covid-19. This seemed quite high on first reading. Can you clarify where this number is from? according the the ONS (https://www.ons.gov.uk/aboutus/transparencyandgovernance/freedomofinformationfoi/covid19deathsinukforchildrenfromages0to19sincemarch2020) up to May 2021 the number seems to be 13 in age group 1-15.
Another study (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-021-01578-1) quotes a figure of 25 deaths in the under 18 group between march 2020 and feb 2021
Also excess mortality (rather than mortality per se) is a more accurate indicator of the risk to children. It is interesting to note that during 2020 the mortality rate was the lowest on record since at least 2015 for the 1-15 age group

I assume the data she has quoted goes up to the time of writing. There have been another 10 or so since.

Your figures are very old. There have been a lot more deaths since Spring 2021, that’s nearly a year ago. The data for child deaths isn’t easy to find but it is out there.

https://coronavirus.data.gov.uk/details/download

Follow the link
Select area type “nation” and then area name “England”
Select the metric “newDeaths28DaysByDeathDateAgeDemographics”
Download the spreadsheet and filter the three age groups 0-4, 5-14 and 15-19.
You have to do the maths yourself – add up each death each day that one occurred.
This will give you the total child deaths JUST FOR ENGLAND.

Yes, exactly as Tom said, the data is there in the ONS, but you have to search the four nations separately and add it up for yourself. Or if you are on twitter you can follow @TigressEllie who has kept an ongoing tally throughout the pandemic using the ONS data. The total is now up to 145, sadly.

yes i agree those ONS charts are hard work and I have been looking at them for the last 2 years. I had a look at the twitter handle and it seems the number of 145 children deaths is coming from Covid mentioned on death certificate rather than Covid being the actual cause of death.

A more useful way to cut through the background noise is to look at all cause mortality in different years and this gives some interesting data. Following are the number of deaths in England and Wales in children aged 1-14 in the last 5 years ( I got these numbers by just manually adding up the rows on the ONS data)

2017 943
2018 961
2019 934
2020 832
2021 812

so total number of deaths in children in this age group has actually fallen over the last 2 years

Yes, that is interesting. Pure speculation but I wonder if fewer traffic accidents could be a factor, particularly during the lockdowns. I think RTAs are one of the very top causes of death, so a reduction in them could have a significant impact on the overall numbers.

I’m not sure if I agree with your use of the word “useful”, either, to be honest. If your aim is to prevent parents from unnecessary bereavements then looking at the breakdown of potentially preventable causes of death and working out strategies to limit the risk of them happening in future is far more “useful” than just taking the numbers as a whole. That’s why we have child death reviews. It is good to know, though, that child deaths continue to fall overall.

This article with its inaccurate data is now being quoted on Twitter. Please publish a correction with accurate data or retract this article altogether

A corrected/updated article with a link to the fullfact article at the top and bottom is now being actively circulated. Thank you for your comment and thanks to everyone on this strand for an excellent discussion.

My 14 year old nephew lost his second grandparent last week to this pandemic. (Since last Thanksgiving 3 generations, all vaxxed, tested positive, but his grandfather did not recover.) Everyone’s actions matter. Everyone matters. Children should not be put in this position. Children and others pay for our mistakes.

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