General Teaching Council Northern Ireland

Sign-up to E-News

Flu and Sickness bug overwhelms schools


Thousands of teachers and pupils are expected to call in sick this week as widespread outbreaks of flu and the norovirus "winter vomiting bug" threaten to disrupt schools across Britain. Teachers' unions warned that schools face a "tough time" when the new term starts tomorrow with flu cases up by 73 per cent on a year ago and the norovirus still rampant.

Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "There are more people struggling with this very unpleasant flu bug, which seems to lay you low for weeks, and various forms of the norovirus. I think the beginning of term is going to be a tough time for schools."

Staffing would inevitably be stretched, he added. "It's not like other workplaces where they carry on; if a teacher is off, the work doesn't get done. You can't have a classroom full of pupils and no teachers. So there will be a need for supply teachers, and you have to hope they don't get ill too. It's easier to get supply teachers in some contexts than others.

"My own observation is that a lot of people are struggling. We'll have to wait until Monday to find out how many. The problem is that if they turn up at school with the virus, it spreads like wildfire."

It has been predicted that this winter could be the worst flu season in nine years. Experts believe the unusually cold weather may have contributed to the surge.

The outbreaks began a month earlier than last winter and coincide with widespread cases of the vomiting bug norovirus, the most common gastrointestinal illness in Britain. Figures from the NHS Alliance show a 25 per cent rise in demand for GP out-of-hour services over the Christmas period, with some areas seeing much higher rates.

John Dunford, general-secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, has been suffering from the bug himself and warned that people who have caught it already are not necessarily out of the woods. "This particular strain seems to be more widespread this year," he said. "The end of the autumn term is often bad, but it may be that the start of the spring term is as bad as the end of the autumn term. It may be that the people who had it before Christmas suffer a second dose, which happened to me."

Asked if there would be enough supply teachers to step in, he added: "Cover will be patchy."

Health experts fear that schools increase the risk of transmission of the norovirus, which could become evident by the end of this week. Professor Steve Field, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, said that the length of time staff or children spend in close physical proximity to each other means that if just one or two have the bug, they could quickly infect many others.

"You would expect the norovirus to affect schools once they reopen this week, but not until the end of next week or the start of the week after, as its incubation period is a few days," said Field, a GP in Birmingham. "If someone hasn't washed their hands properly after going to the loo, someone else could pick up the virus. Simply talking could be another source of transmission, because small droplets of water come out of the mouth when we do as mouth spray."

Although the high number of cases of norovirus is putting a strain on the health service, the fact that teachers and students have not been exposed to each other over the festive break should mean that no school is forced to close this week because of it, he added. Everyone in such confined environments is urged to follow basic hygiene procedures rigorously.


© Copyright 2006 i3 Digital