Health chief feels "slightly helpless" as Covid cases continue to rise in Northamptonshire schools
'We can ask schools to encourage wearing masks, but we can't make them do it unless the government says so'
Health chiefs in Northamptonshire admit they are "helpless" without government backing to enforce measures which could slow the spread of Covid-19 in the county.
Data published on Sunday (October 10) showed more than 4,800 new positive tests across Northamptonshire during the last week, the vast majority among school-age children who are now missing out on being in school once again.
Although many schools are bringing back mask-wearing. the county's Director of Public Health confessed she has no power to force them to do so or promote social distancing unless the government says so.
Lucy Wightman said: "We are giving people as much information as we possibly can and everybody knows the drill that the basics really work — testing, getting vaccinated, giving people space, wearing face coverings and hand washing — and we are supporting headteachers and schools with infection prevention control measures.
"Yet we are still seeing case rates go up, particularly in that school-age age group.
"As a group of regional directors of public health we've been on the brink of putting out local firmer messaging.
"But, sadly, we can't mandate wearing masks in schools and we don't have the legal powers to enforce measures any more. We're all feeling slightly helpless.
"We've also been lobbying up and Public Health England is speaking with government about what powers local directors of public health may need in light of the escalating case rates.
"Very few local authority areas have seen a reduction particularly in school-age age group for a number of weeks.
"We're seeking support for guidance to be much stricter and to have some of those powers where we can enforce local decisions."
Last week's 4,800 positive tests in the county means the daily average of new cases is now approaching peak figures during the pandemic's second wave in January.
Hospitalisations and deaths are significantly lower as more people are protected by Covid vaccines. Yet many experts are still worried about the pace at which the virus is spreading.
Neighbouring Cambridgeshire this week became the first education authority to recommend increased prevention measures in all its schools. These include students and visitors wearing face coverings in schools, social distancing for staff and checking on secondary school students are taking twice-weekly lateral flow device tests.
Vaccines are being rolled out to students aged between 12 and 15 in schools. But jabs can only be given to those who have not had Covid within the last month and the sheer number of students testing positive is likely to slow the delivery.
Mrs Wightman added: "It is a big concern is we've got nearly 90 per cent of Northamptonshire secondary schools with two or more cases — which is the definition of an outbreak.
"Every single school has been affected in some way be it staff, pupils or wider family members.
"With all the relaxation of rules, particularly around isolation of household members, what we're seeing is siblings of a secondary school age pupil are going into a primary school and potentially infecting others.
"That pattern of transmission into other school settings and other year groups is now very dominant."