Parents keep pupils from schools in fear over Sars

ANGRY parents have pulled children out of some of Yorkshire's top private schools because they have not quarantined pupils returning from the Far East in the Sars crisis.

The heads of two fee-paying schools in North Yorkshire confirmed that more than 20 children were being kept away amid fears for their health as the new term began yesterday.

A mother involved in the boycott said: "I am not over-anxious or over-reacting. I simply feel my child is being put at unnecessary risk, no matter how small, especially when quarantine offers a reasonable alternative.

"This is becoming a frightening health issue involving the welfare of children, some very young. The situation could be handled a great deal better."

Her concerns are echoed by medical specialists who say schools are being left confused by conflicting advice and responses to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars), along with the failure of the Government to develop a common policy.

The action by some parents with children at the 210-pupil Terrington Hall preparatory school and Woodleigh School, both near Malton, follows the return after the Easter holiday of a total of 14 pupils from Hong Kong.

It comes on the day that the Sars crisis deepened across the globe, as the number of those affected rose yet again. There are now 4,439 people infected worldwide, and there have been 263 deaths.

In Britain the Government was urged to classify Sars alongside cholera and smallpox so that people arriving here with symptoms could be detained for treatment.

Tory Shadow Health Secretary Dr Liam Fox said Britain's response so far to the outbreak had been "feeble, complacent and irresponsible".

The Tories said the Government should make Sars a "notifiable disease" under the Public Health (Control of Diseases) Act 1984, enabling officials to force people to get treatment, destroy material exposed to the disease and make it a public duty not to expose others to risk.

However, Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson said all six cases in Britain so far had been detected quickly and brought under control.

He added: "We are in very, very close daily contact with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the other countries involved and, far from being feeble or complacent, we are working very, very hard."

The Professor of Public Health and Clinical Bacteriology at Birmingham University, Peter Hawkey, said early detection and extra resources were more important than making Sars a notifiable disease.

The British Medical Association urged people not to panic about Sars and said "all appropriate steps" were being taken to deal with it.

But Liberal Democrat health spokesman Dr Evan Harris said so far the Government had not provided the public with enough information and guidance on the illness.

"People have had to hunt around on the Internet for information on how to avoid the virus," he said.

Sars has not posed a major problem in Britain so far and there have been only six probable cases and no deaths.

The death rate for the disease is between five and six per cent, compared with a mortality rate of 30 per cent for smallpox.

Dr Julie Hall, of the World Health Organisation's Sars team, said yesterday that many of those who had died from Sars had existing health conditions and most were aged over 40.

But, unlike diseases such as flu, Sars had also caused deaths in middle-aged people who were otherwise healthy.

She said one of the major problems facing health officials was that because Sars was a new disease, it was more difficult to predict its course.

"We have to work very very quickly and there has to be an enormous global collaboration and co-operation to be able to investigate it and put control measures in place," she said.

Contrary to some reports, she said there was no evidence that the Sars virus was mutating.

On Wednesday the WHO provoked anger from the Canadian authorities after advising people to avoid unnecessary travel to Toronto.

Dr Hall said that when issuing and reviewing guidance the organisation looked at the number of cases, the risk of the disease being exported elsewhere and how the virus was being spread.

Following the WHO advice, the British Government warned Britons not to travel to Toronto, as well as Hong Kong and parts of China.

But the Canadian High Commission in London said there was little risk of contracting Sars in normal day-to-day activities and insisted "travel to Toronto is safe".

Health officials also said that 140 children from Hong Kong and China who were quarantined on the Isle of Wight six days ago had so far shown no sign of the illness.

That seemed to back up Terrington Hall and Woodleigh's decision to keep pupils within the school, although some schools in the country, including some in Yorkshire, have decided to isolate children.

The head teacher of Harrogate Ladies' College decided quarantine was the best route for her 42 pupils, and went into isolation with them on Wednesday.

But Terrington head John Glen said yesterday that he had been advised that isolating pupils could be counter-productive.

Instead the health of six boys from Asia is being monitored within the school, and they are in a separate dormitory from other boarders.

Mr Glen said: "I sought the advice of everyone from medical experts to educationalists and concluded that what we were doing was the most sensible response.

"My own two children attend the school and you are always a parent first, a headmaster second. If I'm happy with the situation –I would have thought that would serve as a reassurance to other a parents. In a few cases it hasn't been."

Mr Glen said his response to the Sars scare had been reinforced by the parents of his Hong Kong pupils. "They all informed me that during the boys' holiday there they were kept in quarantine at home, in virtually sterile conditions, and were under strict medical supervision throughout. Before returning they were given a certificate to confirm that.

"The risk they present is negligible, probably non-existent. Indeed, I'm further advised that our action makes considerably more sense than keeping 140 pupils from Hong Kong together on the Isle of Wight."

Not everyone is convinced by such a stance. About a dozen locally-based pupils are also being kept away from Woodleigh School at Langton, over concerns at the presence of eight others who have returned from Hong Kong.

Woodleigh's headmaster, Michael England, said they had been screened before leaving, again on arrival in Britain and at school their temperature was being taken twice a day.

He commented: "They wouldn't be here now if it was felt they presented a health risk. Our duty is to ensure that we undertake a policy which is as secure as we can make it, and that we follow professional advice. We would change that immediately if circumstances demanded."

One mother said she would be keeping her child out of school for 10 days, to cover the quarantine period of the arrivals from Hong Kong. "We've had information from my child's school, but since then the health situation has deteriorated in the Far East and I don't feel the school's policy is reflecting that, hence the boycott by some parents.

"We are not prepared to take any risk over health, however remote."