Chart of the week: The growth in infection outbreaks during 2020 that led to school closures in 2021

Each week we present analysis of data in chart form to illustrate some key issues and invite discussion. Having looked at acute respiratory outbreak data as schools returned in September 2020, Elizabeth Fisher returns to the same issue today to look at the growth in outbreaks in schools and universities towards the end of last year which contributed to schools' eventual closure at the beginning of 2021.

Chart of the week

Published: 14/01/2021

Since we last looked at acute respiratory infection (ARI) outbreaks, the second Covid-19 wave has swept in, surpassing the first peak and revealing a different pattern of outbreak settings. We’ve revisited the data* to look back at the whole of 2020.

Unsurprisingly, because of the new coronavirus, the number of ARI outbreaks in 2020 was far greater than those seen in recent years. In late autumn, the average weekly number of ARI outbreaks was 24 times higher than over comparable weeks in 2018 and 2019, and nearly 10 times higher in early winter.

Outbreaks in care homes accounted for the vast majority of ARI reports during the first wave. But by early autumn, when students and pupils returned to schools, colleges and universities, outbreaks in educational settings rose hugely – as did outbreaks in the workplace.

Although the risk of dying for most people in educational settings is relatively low, the impact of closures in response to outbreaks – on the wellbeing and development of children and young people, and the wellbeing of their families and wider society – can’t be ignored. This is in addition to the burden of the actual illness on those infected and the risks of spreading it to family members as outbreaks occur.

While hope is on the horizon with the new approved vaccines, most children and young people, teachers and support staff are not on the priority list. Furthermore, it is not known how effective the vaccines are at stopping the virus from spreading. All of which means the first major phases of the vaccine rollout will not reduce transmission in educational settings, so further outbreaks are likely as soon as they reopen.

Our previous chart of the week on outbreaks of these kinds concluded that the reopening of schools last September would be something of an experiment. We now know the outcome. But at some point, schools, colleges and universities will have to reopen. Perhaps what is needed this time is more support in preventing and dealing with outbreaks.


About the data

*Public Health England states that acute respiratory infection incidents are based on situations reported to PHE Health Protection Teams. These include confirmed outbreaks of acute respiratory infections, i.e. two or more laboratory confirmed cases (Covid-19, influenza or other respiratory pathogen) linked to a particular setting. The number of individuals in each outbreak is not reported on, so the number of people affected each week is unknown.