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Schools to close from Monday amidst fears over new virus strains

Schools to close from Monday amidst fears over new virus strains

by Julie Edde and John Monaghan 4 min. 04.02.2021
Education Minister Meisch announces new measures after outbreaks at several schools
The Albert-Wingert school in Schifflange Photo: Dino Ruffato
The Albert-Wingert school in Schifflange Photo: Dino Ruffato

Luxembourg schools will close from Monday after a rapid rise of Covid-19 among pupils and amidst fears over highly infectious new strains of the coronavirus, Education Minister Claude Meisch said on Thursday.

The closure will be for one week, after which authorities will decide whether an extension is needed, Meisch said at a press conference. He also appealed for parents and pupils to "stop social interactions" so as not to undo the effects of the lockdown by meeting outside school.

The virus is showing no signs of backing down as Luxembourg reported 199 new cases on Thursday, and one death. A total of 1,155 people were vaccinated, most of them receiving the first of the two jabs needed.

The closure comes as thirty children at a school in Schifflange tested positive for coronavirus - with three classes forced into quarantine - and as worries rise over new strains that are more difficult to control.

The mutations, which have emerged in the UK, South Africa, Brazil and California, are more infectious than the original virus, according to researchers. Such mutations consists of small changes in the genetic make-up of a virus, which can alter its behaviour.

The pupils at the school in Schifflange, south of Luxembourg City, were aged between six and seven years old, according to Schifflange Mayor Paul Weimerskirch.  The figure could turn out to be even higher as not everyone in the school had yet been tested for the virus. 

As a result, all of the classes in the year group must quarantine and were being tested for the virus on Thursday. The infection rate in schools in Luxembourg remains high, with the number of confirmed infections almost doubling in the past week. The latest weekly figures, released on Thursday, show there were 301 cases of Covid-19 amongst pupils and staff in schools in Luxembourg in the week between January 25 and 31, up from 168 the previous week.

The cluster of infections at the school cluster came just two days after 81 people in a care home in the capital attracted the disease. Eight residents of the Sainte Elisabeth am Park nursing home have died and dozens more are ill, following a Covid-19 outbreak in the past fortnight.

Slow vaccinations

The EU's vaccination programme is well behind the US and the UK. On average, countries have handed out 3.22 doses of the available vaccines per 100 residents, compared to 15.5 in the UK and 10.13 in the US. Luxembourg's programme is one of the slowest in Europe.

Yet Health Minister Paulette Lenert defended the Grand Duchy's approach in a public discussion. Asked about why a country such as Israel was much further ahead in terms of vaccinations, the social-democrat said the EU had “acted as a family” in ordering vaccines.

“We are a member of the EU, we act together. The volume of purchases…a country acting individually would not have been able to do that. We could not negotiate separately, that was part of the contract,” she said.

But Michel Pletschette, a Luxembourgish epidemiologist based at the University of Munich, contradicted Lenert's comments on the EU approach, saying it was public knowledge that some governments such as Germany had placed individual orders.

The Russian vaccine Sputnik V could be delivered in the EU, including in Luxembourg, according to the government's top doctor Jean-Claude Schmit, who spoke at a conference on Wednesday. Western countries were quick to pooh-pooh the Russian vaccine when it came out, but a study in the academic journal The Lancet this week showed it was as effective as those developed in Europe or North America.

At the start of January, Luxembourg had in fact attempted to procure BioNTech/Pfizer vaccines, before it dropped the order after the EU Commission struck a deal to buy 300 million doses.

Tilly Metz, a Luxembourgish member of the European Parliament for the Greens, criticised the “transparency” of the vaccine process in the EU, adding: “We’re talking about billions and billions of public money. The prices and deliveries of doses are still not public.”

Lenert also said it was “difficult to make comparisons” when asked about criticism from officials in neighbouring Germany about Luxembourg’s more relaxed approach to lockdown. 

Referring to Germany’s federal state structure, she said: “It’s difficult to make a comparison.. the situation is better here, our infection rate is lower than our neighbours.” “In Luxembourg there are strict conditions on activities… for example when going to the cinema you have to wear a mask and keep a safe distance,” she added.

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