Attendees and apologies
Advisory group members
- Prof Linda Bauld (Chair)
- Catherine Agnew
- Prof Marion Bain
- Prof Chris Chapman
- Iona Colvin
- Prof Julie Fitzpatrick
- Gayle Gorman
- Gaenor Hardy
- Dona Milne
- Dr Eileen Scott
- Prof Devi Sridhar
- Dr Diane Stockton
- Prof Ian Rivers
- Prof Brigid Daniel
- Prof Paul Flowers
- Dr Shamez Ladhani
- Victoria Ayre
- Jennifer Bradley
- Victoria Bruce
- Andrew Drought
- Daniel Kleinberg
- Audrey MacDougall
- Fiona McDiarmid
- Gary Sutton
- William Wardrop
- Sam Anson
- Judith Tracey
- Judith Clark
Items and actions
The Chair welcomed members to the meeting and provided a brief update on actions from the previous meeting.
Minute of meeting on 25 January
The minute was confirmed as an accurate record of the meeting.
Review of evidence
The sub-group considered the latest data on the state of the epidemic. The overall 7-day rate of positive cases had decreased for 2-17 year olds, with decreases being observed among five to eleven year olds, 12 to 13 and 14 to 15 year olds, and an increase being observed in 18 to 19 year olds. The R rate was in Scotland was between 0.6 and 0.9 as of 18 January. Declining case numbers within schools were noted, though the number of schools with reported cases remained similar. The number of education staff absent for COVID-related reasons was lower than the peak in recent weeks but remained relatively high. As of 3 February 86.3% of the population aged 12 and over had received a second dose of the vaccine, with 69.0% having received a booster vaccination.
Overall hospital admissions decreased in the week to 30 January, with an increase in the hospitalisation rate being seen in two to four and five to 11 year olds, and 12-17 year olds seeing a decrease. There were 121 registered COVID related deaths among the population as a whole in the week to 30 January, a decrease of 17% on the previous week. It was reported that the BA.2 variant of Omicron appears to be more contagious than the BA.1 variant, though it does not seem to be any more severe.
The latest evidence on the wider harms of the pandemic on children and young people was also considered by the sub-group. Emerging impacts continued to be seen in relation to concerns about access to child health services, child development, child protection, and mental and dental health. It was noted that some of these impacts will be significant and long term, with issues also being reported around alcohol, substance misuse, diet and weight. While certain issues will require more time to address, it was highlighted that there will be substantial benefits to early intervention in some areas, such as for affected children who are just entering early learning and childcare (ELC) settings.
Sub-group members also received an update on the latest evidence on long COVID-19 risk in children. It was noted that children’s immune systems respond differently to COVID compared to those of adults, and that their risk of developing long COVID-19 is very low, with the vast majority of symptoms disappearing over time and the most common enduring symptom being anosmia. However, many initial studies did not include appropriate control groups, which has made drawing accurate conclusions from their results difficult in comparison to later more robust studies.
Mitigations in schools
The sub-group considered their advice on mitigations in schools, including whether it remained appropriate and proportionate to retain the requirement for face coverings to be worn in classrooms by secondary age pupils. A series of key factors were highlighted which demonstrated that it was the right time to relax advice on some mitigations, including that: case rates were falling for secondary-aged young people; hospitalisation rates were falling across all age categories; and the estimated R rate was below one and decreasing.
While the current trends in the data were positive, the pandemic is far from over, and it will therefore be important to maintain the flexibility to reintroduce measures in should the situation deteriorate, for example in the event of concerns around a new variant. Where changes are being proposed, it will be important to follow a phased approach, in order to retain the confidence of education staff, children and young people, and families, and ensure those in schools continue to feel safe to attend. Allowing time for schools and local authorities to plan for and communicate these changes to their communities will also be beneficial.
Given the cumulative and ongoing impacts on children and young people’s mental health and development, with the continuing long term nature of the pandemic, there were suggestions that the balance of harms has now shifted in relation to some mitigations. Sub-group members highlighted that the continuing priority should be to allow for as much of a return to normality for children and young people as possible. In particular, the sub-group noted that young people had been required to wear face coverings all day in school for almost a year (since February 2021) and restated its concern about the accumulated impact of that requirement on communication, learning, and wellbeing.
Sub-group members reiterated that measures which apply to children and young people should not be disproportionate to those for wider society, and advised that where appropriate certain measures could be relaxed earlier for children and young people. This might include future changes to isolation or asymptomatic testing policy, which can cause particular anxiety for children and young people, including those in exam age groups.
While there were a range of views regarding any potential changes to asymptomatic testing and isolation policy, it was noted that this should be looked at alongside the wider strategy. In relation to education settings it will be important to consider the balance of reducing learning disruption while avoiding any potential increase in symptomatic cases and resulting absences. Nevertheless, there will be a continuing need to ensure educational support for those out of school due to COVID-19, and it will be important to apply the learning from the pandemic to future educational provision for children out of school for any reason.
In conclusion, the sub-group advised that the current conditions indicated that mitigations in schools could be further relaxed, suggesting this begin after the February half term break, with the removal of face coverings in classrooms on 28 February. This change was particularly important from the perspective of supporting learning and teaching, including through reducing any impacts on communication.
Related to this, they suggested that the requirement for adults and secondary pupils to wear face coverings when in communal areas or moving around the building should remain, in line with equivalent guidance for other public areas and recognising lower levels of Harm three impact from this requirement. However, in maintaining consistency of approach across settings it was agreed that if, at the next review point on 22 February, it was decided that face coverings were no longer required in other workplaces or in hospitality, then it would be consistent to judge that they should no longer be required in school settings also.
It was also suggested that restrictions relating to assemblies and transition visits (for those learners who would be starting primary or secondary in August 2022) should also be eased on 28 February given the benefits of these activities, including their role in establishing school community, religious observance and supporting non-contact time for teachers.
Members agreed that they would look again at the remaining mitigations at their next meeting(s), with the possibility of recommending moving to the full set of baseline measures later in March should the data permit. However, members also suggested that they felt this timetable erred on the side of caution, and that they would welcome an acceleration of these changes if circumstances allowed.
Action: sub-group members to review their advice on remaining mitigations in schools at their next meeting.
Update on early learning and childcare (ELC) settings
The sub-group received an update on the current situation in ELC settings. It was noted that the sub-group had agreed at its last meeting that a continuity position should apply in respect of the ELC guidance for the time being, but that they would keep this under close review. In view of current case rates in ELC settings, there was agreement that this position should be maintained at present, but that changes to ELC mitigations would be considered by the sub-group in conjunction with further changes to mitigations in schools.
Sub-group members emphasised once more that further mitigations should be relaxed for ELC as soon as the data permits, with a particular focus on parental access to settings and encouraging further re-engagement with parents and carers to build these valuable relationships.
Date of next meeting
The next meeting will be held on 22 February.
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