Chart of the week: What effect will the return to schools and universities have on infection outbreaks this autumn?

Each week we present analysis of data in chart form to illustrate some key issues and invite discussion. As children return to schools this week and universities prepare to open their doors later this month, we look back at national reporting of acute respiratory infection outbreaks to see what previously happened in schools and educational settings – and discuss whether Covid-19 might have unpredictable effects on historical trends.

Chart of the week

Published: 10/09/2020

Concern over the return of children and young people to schools and higher education has focused on the potential for the spread of Covid-19. Educational establishments can be centres for the transmission and spread of many infectious diseases that cause acute respiratory infections. Indeed, Public Health England’s flu and Covid-19 data shows this to be the case.

This year is unlike any before, of course. As our chart shows, acute respiratory infection outbreaks this year – driven by Covid-19 – peaked in care homes at a time when schools were closed to most. But this autumn and winter could be very different for educational settings.

The evidence so far is that Covid-19 outbreaks in schools are rare. But with the return to schools and universities for millions of children and young people, this could change.

With many of the symptoms of other acute respiratory infections being similar to Covid-19, efficient testing, tracking and tracing will be critical for minimising unnecessary disruption in schools and homes.

On the other hand, there will be enhanced infection control measures in educational settings, which could also curb the circulation of other viruses and bacteria.

Nonetheless, the return to school is something of an experiment in unwinding lockdown measures.



About this data

  • The break in the data between week 21 and week 39 2019 inclusive does not indicate zero outbreaks of ARI – rather that the data was not provided in a format that was easy to interrogate.
  • 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.
  • In 2018/19 the setting is described as ‘schools’ in the flu surveillance data. In 2019/20 the setting is described as ‘educational settings’ in the Covid-19 surveillance data.
  • Data on prisons, workplace settings and food outlets/restaurants were only reported as separate settings in the 2019/20 surveillance collections.
  • Note the number of individuals in each outbreak is not reported on, so the scale of the number of people affected each week is unknown.