On the Thursday night before half-term, our eight-year-old son complained of a pain in his chest and felt hot to touch, although our digital thermometer said he was normal. Covid? It seemed highly unlikely: in Bristol, where we live, less than two in every 10,000 people were infected – below the national average and well below where we were just a few months ago. It is probably a cold, I thought.
The next morning he appeared by our bedside at 7am complaining that his eyeballs hurt. “Maybe we should keep you off school,” I said. But he wanted to go and had already put on his school jumper and karate trousers; they were allowed to wear what they wanted as part of their end-of-term “class treat”. “Why don’t you have some breakfast, and we’ll see,” I suggested.
He ate breakfast and seemed fine, but we were still in two minds about sending him in. Then I remembered the rapid lateral flow tests (LFTs) in the kitchen drawer.
I unwrapped a test and began swabbing him, as our 10-year-old daughter set off for school alone. Five minutes later, we were staring in disbelief at the second red line in the test cartridge: positive.
My husband managed to retrieve our daughter before she got to school. She was confused: she had no symptoms. But she was also positive. We let the school know, went for confirmatory PCR tests, Googled “how common is false positive lateral flow test?”, learning that the chances of a positive result being wrong are approximately one in 1,000. The odds of two false positives in the same household on the same day were vanishingly small. Still, we held out hope.
At about 4pm, two emails arrived from the school informing us that an unnamed child had tested positive in each of our children’s classes. Our children.
The emails warned us that if their PCR tests were positive, all children in the two affected classes would have to self-isolate for 10 days.
That’s when the class WhatsApp chat started.
Throughout the pandemic, our school has been one of the lucky ones, with very few cases or class closures. People were optimistic: they were packing to go on holiday; relatives were arriving at their homes for long-overdue reunions. Things were finally going back to normal.
Those school emails – and the second batch on Saturday morning, after the PCR tests came back positive (my husband and I were both negative) – dashed all of that.
“Ping,” went my phone. “Ping, ping.”
WhatsApp is not a healthy place to loiter when you have in effect cancelled half-term for 60 families. I cringed as the disappointment poured in.
We phoned the parents of those kids most likely to have been infected by our kids: one was packing up their family’s tent and returning home from a group camping trip to self-isolate.
We kept all of this quiet from the children. Even so, when I told our daughter her PCR test had come back positive, the first thing she said was: “Everyone’s going to blame us for ruining their half-term.”
We explained that we had done the right thing. If we hadn’t raised the alert, other potentially infected people might have passed Covid to their friends and relatives. She was still sad; we all were.
I was halfway through my second call to NHS test and trace when I received a text message from a friend asking if I was OK. She had heard that our children were the ones with Covid.
I called her straight back: “How did you know?” I asked. Apparently, the parents on a separate Cubs WhatsApp group had worked it out by comparing notes about which siblings were in which classes, and who had been off school the day before.
Never underestimate a squad of anxious parents. I was shocked, even though I didn’t blame them. I’m sure I’d have been doing the same thing had our roles been reversed.
At around the same time, another message popped up on the class WhatsApp: “I’m not sure who the family is with the positive tests but, if you’re on here, please know we’re thinking of the kids and hope they don’t have too rough a time.”
It was followed by several more messages like this. I broke down in tears.
I am not writing this to try to make anyone feel bad. Those same WhatsApp groups and their inhabitants have been a source of solace, camaraderie and inspiration over the past week. We are getting through this strange half-term together – with virtual bake-offs, playdates over FaceTime and well-tidied Tupperware cupboards. Friends are shopping for us and saying hi from across the front garden. It is all very 2020.
I am writing this because of what happened next, and because I am concerned that something similar is now happening at other schools across the country. Because I’m worried that all this talk of “freedom day” and foreign holidays is making us complacent about Covid-19.
Once parents at the school knew that our children had tested positive, they started testing their own kids. Others were infected – particularly in our son’s class, but also in other classes and year groups. Most, to my knowledge, were asymptomatic when they took the test.
So far 12 pupils and a member of staff have tested positive. In some ways, we are lucky that half-term arrived when it did – it is acting as a firebreak. Other Bristol schools and early years settings are also experiencing outbreaks, 16 of them as of Wednesday. At least some of these are being driven by the more transmissible Delta variant first detected in India, the council has said.
Until now, the assumption was that primary-age children played only a minor role in driving community transmission of Covid-19, because they are less infectious. The situation at our children’s school appears to contradict this.
Alternatively, many other Covid cases in the community are going undetected, and our kids are the canaries in the coalmine. Neither scenario is good, particularly given new Public Health England (PHE) data suggesting the Delta variant may be associated with a 2.61 times higher risk of hospitalisation compared with the Alpha variant first detected in Kent.
According to PHE data released on Thursday, the number of Delta variant infections in schools or other educational settings rose rapidly between 26 April and 30 May, with 97 confirmed Covid outbreaks in primary and secondary schools that have had at least one variant case linked to them during this period – about one in 250 schools.
“It is clear that schools are a major source of transmission and that outbreaks in primary and secondary schools have been growing a lot, week on week,” said Prof Christina Pagel, the director of University College London’s clinical operational research unit.
My husband and I are now also infected. After the discovery of Covid in the house, we flung our windows wide open, insisted on regular handwashing and tried to avoid getting too close to our children. But they are still little, and in this horrible situation they needed cuddles.
We placed hope in the vaccines. Both of us had received at least one Covid-19 jab: I had received my first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine nearly three weeks before all this; my husband had received his second jab in the past week. We knew we weren’t fully protected, particularly against newer variants, but we hoped they would stop us from getting ill.
On Monday evening I was too tired to get out of bed. On Tuesday morning I woke up drenched in sweat, with a terrible headache. My LFT was positive. Later that day, a slew of front pages cheerfully announced that the government had recorded zero Covid deaths for the first time since the pandemic started.
Since then, I’ve had an on-off fever, headache, fatigue and I’ve now partially lost my sense of smell. My husband currently has no symptoms.
The other day, a friend asked if I knew who Patient Zero was. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t also considered how Covid took root in our school. But in a pandemic that has been raging for almost a year and half, the reality is there is no Patient Zero. The virus is out there, passing from person to person, even if it looks like it is not. Even if we pretend it is on the brink of being over.