Antibiotics could be given to children at schools affected by Strep A to stop the spread of the infection, schools minister Nick Gibb has said.
Mr Gibb told Sky News that the UK Health and Security Agency (UKHSA) is “working closely with the schools involved and giving very specific advice to those schools which may involve the use of penicillin”.
He added that health officials will “have more to say about that”.
“They’re providing more general advice to parents, which is to look out for the symptoms – so, sore throat, fever, high temperature and also a red or raised rash on the skin are symptoms of this invasive Strep A outbreak.”
His comments came after the eighth death of a child from the infection.
The idea was first indicated by health minister Lord Markham in the House of Lords on Monday.
The Conservative peer said: “We have given instructions to doctors that where necessary they should be proactively prescribing penicillin as the best line of defence on this, and also where there is a spread in primary schools, which we know is the primary vector for this, whether they should be working with local health protection teams, and sometimes actually look at the use of antibiotics on a prophylactic basis.”
Overnight, the i newspaper reported that penicillin or an alternative antibiotic is to be given to all children in a year group that have been hit by a case of Strep A – even if they do not have symptoms.
GPs generally avoid mass prescription of antibiotics as it can build up resistance to serious infections in the population.
But the paper quotes health officials as confirming the plan and saying isolation among children during the pandemic may have contributed to them having reduced immunity.
The UK Health Security Agency told the PA news agency the measure of prescribing antibiotics to children in a school or nursery exposed to non-invasive Strep A was “rare”.
The agency added the move is only considered in “exceptional circumstances” by the Outbreak Control Team (OCT) on a “case-by-case basis”.
“There is no good evidence of (antibiotics’) effectiveness in routine outbreak control in this setting (involving children who have been contacts of non-invasive Strep A),” UKHSA said.
“It can be considered in exceptional circumstances by the OCT, for example when there are reports of severe outcomes, or hospitalisations.
“In school and nursery settings, antibiotic chemoprophylaxis is not routinely recommended for contacts of non-invasive (Group A streptococcus) GAS infection.”
Asked about the recent rise in cases on Monday, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s official spokesman said: “We are seeing a higher number of cases of Group A strep this year compared to usual.
“The bacteria we know causes a mild infection which is easily treated with antibiotics and in rare circumstances it can get into the bloodstream and cause serious illness.
“It is still uncommon but it’s important parents are on the lookout for symptoms.”
Strep A infections are usually mild and can be easily treated with antibiotics.
Illnesses caused by the Group A strep bacteria include the skin infection impetigo, scarlet fever and strep throat.
There has been a big leap in the number of scarlet fever cases.
There were 851 cases reported from 14 to 20 November, compared to an average of 186 for the same timeframe in previous years.
Symptoms of scarlet fever include sore throat, headache and fever, along with a fine, pinkish or red body rash with a “sandpapery” feel.
On darker skin, the rash can be harder to see but will still be “sandpapery”.