Coronavirus: Hull’s school system on ‘brink of collapse’ as infection rates spiral among students and staff

·5-min read
 (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Hull’s entire school system is “on the brink of collapse” amid surging coronavirus cases among students and teachers, the city’s education chief has told The Independent.

Schools will be forced to close on mass if infection rates cannot be brought under control within the next week, because so many staff are being taken ill or having to self-isolate, Councillor Peter Clark, cabinet member for learning and skills, said.

He made the grim warning while revealing almost 15,000 students and teachers are currently absent — with those numbers expected to rise.

It came as the East Yorkshire city emerged as the country’s new Covid-19 hotspot with 770 cases per 100,000 people — with schools being identified as major transmission hubs.

The virus, wrote city council leader Stephen Brady in a letter asking Boris Johnson for help on Monday, was “ravaging our communities more than anywhere else in our country".

The situation, he added, was now worse than during the first wave and spiraling at a "terrifying rate”.

Now, headteachers, academy bosses and city officials have made a joint plea to Whitehall asking to be allowed to move to blended learning — a combination of home and classroom-based teaching — in a bid to halt the spread among both pupils and the wider population.

In a letter to the Department for Education, the Hull Learning Partnership, which represents the city’s 97 schools, asked for permission for greater flexibility in the run-up to Christmas.

But the request was effectively refused, said Councillor Clark, with Westminster mandarins saying schools must be kept open at all costs.

“I’m petrified that they won’t consider this,” he said. “This is a dark, frightening storm and we need to act fast, and here we have headteachers with hundreds of years of experience between them asking for greater flexibility for the good not just of their schools but of their wider communities too, and that is being point blank turned down by people in London who do not appear to grasp what is happening."

He added: “If action is not taken now, the option to go into blended learning will not be an option anymore — because schools will simply be forced to close. We are on the brink of collapse here.”

Of the city’s 97 schools, some 56 have already had to send entire classes or year groups home to self-isolate at some point, he revealed. Attendance rates are currently at 72 per cent, meaning almost 15,000 students are currently off school. The national average is currently bouncing around the 85 per cent mark.

Crucially, NHS bosses in the city — where there have already been 252 deaths — have backed the demand for reduced school contact time, saying it would lower community spread and, as a result, ease the growing pressures on Hull’s two hospitals.

Latest figures suggest there are currently 180 inpatients with Covid-19, but experts suggest that could reach 500 within two weeks. Elective operations have already been cancelled in a bid to free-up space, while staff have been deployed to new coronavirus wards from other departments.

"We need to be looking quite seriously at much stiffer lockdown restrictions than we have got," said Chris Long, chief executive of the Hull University Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust.

The Department for Education has been contacted by The Independent but so far not commented on the plea.

Hull City HallGetty Images
Hull City HallGetty Images

Quite why Hull — the fourth most deprived city in the country — has emerged as a hotspot midway through a second national lockdown is something of a mystery.

Data suggest that no one area or age group is behind the flare-up, but that cases are emerging simultaneously everywhere. “We cannot get a grip on it,” said Councillor Clark. “There’s no pattern.”

Dr Cheryl Walter, lecturer in microbiology at the University of Hull, said that the city’s proximity to West Yorkshire — which has had high rates through the summer and autumn — may have resulted in the virus being slowly sown in the region.

But she also suggested the fact that Hull got off relatively lightly in the first wave may have exacerbated the new outbreak. “There is very little immunity here,” she said.

She said the quickest way back to normality would probably be through a mass screening programme similar to that now happening in Liverpool — which previously had the country’s highest infection rates.

“We really need to consider this as a tool,” she said. “We need to find those asymptomatic carriers quickly and limit the spread.”

While huge numbers of rapid-result tests are being sent to the city by the government, city councillors say they do not have the manpower to run a scheme like that in Merseyside without the same level of help that has been offered there.

“Liverpool got the army,” said Councillor Daren Hale, the authority’s deputy leader. “We need the same kind help. People will continue suffering here without it.”

He added the idea that the city could come out of lockdown on 2 December in line with the proposed national easing of restrictions was a nonsense.

“The way things are going, by the start of December, we are going to be need an even tighter lockdown," he said. "That’s the reality we are dealing with.”

In his letter on Monday, council leader Brady hinted at just that, asking Boris Johnson for more freedom to enforce local restrictions, more support from Public Health England, discussions about what will happen in Hull when the planned period of national restrictions ends, discussions about financial support for local businesses and additional support and resources for the area’s hospitals.

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