Schools should return to normal by the autumn and pupils should not go into social isolation if in contact with a positive Covid case, an infectious disease expert has said.

Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia (UEA), said it was right that the guidance on school-age pupils to isolate for 10 days remains until the end of the summer term.

Eastern Daily Press: Paul Hunter, from the UEA, believes the Covid vaccine rollout should continue in its current formPaul Hunter, from the UEA, believes the Covid vaccine rollout should continue in its current form (Image: Archant © 2013)

His views come as school leaders warned the biggest impact of social isolation on students would be on their mental wellbeing, rather than their attainment levels.

Major efforts are under way from schools to support people who are struggling including access to pastoral care, one-to-one guidance and sports clubs.

Prof Hunter said: "It is something I don't think we can justify forever. There is a good case to be made that the continuing disruption might not be needed come September.

"We are getting to the point where we have done as much as we can to protect our vulnerable population. At some point we have to say we have to carry on with some form of balance.

"I don't think we will get to zero risk of Covid - it is not going away. People who have been arguing about zero Covid levels have no information about infectious diseases. It is here to stay. The head of the World Health Organisation and Chris Whitty have said this."

But the expert said the isolation period for bubbles was appropriate because of the recent rise in Covid cases across the UK.

Prof Hunter said more than half of cases reported in the UK, according to Department of Health figures were in people under 30, compared to the start of the pandemic when more than half of people catching the disease were over 60.

He added: "Infection is spreading in school-age children."

The UEA expert believed good vaccine rates, which offered high protection from hospitalisation and serious illness from Covid, meant the predicted third wave of the disease in the autumn would be less significant than the first two.

He was comfortable with so-called freedom day on July 19 when social distancing rules are expected to be dropped and said: "I don't intend to wear a mask after that unless I'm in a crowded environment or someone wants me to wear one."

Prof Hunter added that Norfolk has got off "relatively lightly" in terms of coronavirus cases and deaths because of low population density and fewer multi-generational households.

Eastern Daily Press: Claire Heald, deputy chief executive of the Inspiration Trust.Claire Heald, deputy chief executive of the Inspiration Trust. (Image: Andi Sapey)

Claire Heald, deputy chief executive of the Inspiration Trust, which runs eight secondary schools, five primary schools and one sixth form college in Norfolk said since March 2020, 61pc of its pupils had self-isolated because of a positive Covid case.

She said: "Most of our schools have had a case at one point or another."

The school leader added the biggest impact on pupils was on their mental health rather than academic knowledge because of remote learning being offered.

"There will be young people for whom there might be long term impacts but I hope for the majority of our pupils the work we are doing to support them will help.

"The rhetoric in the wider media about a lost generation and children having to catch up is difficult for young people to hear. We focus on helping them reach their potential," she added.

Ms Heald said it would be brilliant if the advice on social isolation changed but it was right to follow the guidance for people's safety.

Eastern Daily Press: Isabel Stubbs, headteacher of Cecil Gowing Infant School in Sprowston.Isabel Stubbs, headteacher of Cecil Gowing Infant School in Sprowston. (Image: Cecil Gowing Infant School)

Isabel Stubbs, headteacher at Cecil Gowing Infant School in Sprowston, which had two outbreaks last year, said: "Children miss their friends and cannot see other family members when they isolate. It is also difficult for parents because they sometimes have another child to look after.

"If parents are working at home they have to keep their children occupied and that has an impact on everyone.

"The parents have done their very best and the children have been superstars."

Emma Scarisbrick, headteacher of St Michael's CofE Academy in King's Lynn, said: "Full bubble closures can cause anxiety amongst parents and children and we are always mindful to offer wellbeing support, if children are in school or at home.

"The reality of life at the current moment, is that accessible and regular PCR testing, where results can be turned around in 24 hours, means that the disruption to pupils having to isolate is much more minimal. All schools are still vigilant and are diligently following the guidance."

Readers' response to social isolation rules

Eastern Daily Press: A pupil learning from home via a laptop.A pupil learning from home via a laptop. (Image: Archant)

The response to whether schools should carry on isolating children for pupils has divided opinion from readers.

On the EDP Facebook page, Alexander Jackson said: "If you let them mix and infect each other the delta variant will mutate. I want to get back to normal but the vaccine only stops you getting ill, not spreading the virus. I fear we heading for another lockdown this winter once the virus mutates into something more sinister again."

Michelle Moorhouse said: "Of course they should still need to isolate! Lots of parents have only just had one vaccine, not to mention that just because children are less likely to die from Covid, it doesn't mean they won't be unwell or develop long Covid afterwards. There are large groups of parents online in specific groups trying to get support for their children who are still suffering the after-effects from having the virus."

But Claire Lou said: "I don’t see the point in making children self-isolate just because they may of [sic] come into contact with someone who has Covid. Our children have missed enough time off school."

Rafal Betker said: "No. It's time to get back to normal."

Mental health expert concerned over long-term effects of self-isolation

Eastern Daily Press: Bill Belton, a youth recovery support manager for Norfolk and Waveney Mind.Bill Belton, a youth recovery support manager for Norfolk and Waveney Mind. (Image: Norfolk and Waveney Mind)

A charity worker has warned teenagers and university students will need extra support coming out of the pandemic.

Bill Belton, a youth recovery support manager for Norfolk and Waveney Mind, said: "Social isolation has been hard for everyone but the specific impact on young people is much higher because they rely so much on that social interaction.

"As adults, we can manage situations because we have experience but it is harder on young people because they don't have that life experience.

"We are seeing an increase in need from young people."

He added that social isolation had a bigger effect on people from more deprived areas because some did not have easy access to technology used for home learning and interacting with friends.

Mr Belton said: "There is going to be a long-term impact on young people. There is a lot of anxiety about going back into society."