Coronavirus (COVID 19): Advisory Sub-Group on Education and Children’s Issues minutes: 1 December 2020

Minutes from the sixteenth meeting of the COVID-19 Advisory Group held on Tuesday 1 December 2020.

Attendees and apologies

Advisory Group Members:

  • Prof Carol Tannahill (Chair)
  • Prof Sheila Rowan
  • Prof Aline-Wendy Dunlop
  • Prof Chris Chapman
  • Gayle Gorman
  • Prof Brigid Daniel
  • Prof Devi Sridhar
  • Dona Milne
  • Prof Ian Rivers
  • Iona Colvin
  • Prof Marion Bain
  • Prof Paul Flowers


  • Dr Eileen Scott 

SG (observing):  

  • Daniel Kleinberg
  • Dr Julie Aitken 

Public Health Scotland (observing):

Dr Diane Stockton (for Eileen Scott)


  • Elizabeth Morrison
  • Judith Tracey
  • Frank Creamer

Items and actions


The meeting was chaired by Carol Tannahill. The Chair welcomed colleagues and also welcomed Dr Diane Stockton from Public Health Scotland, Andy Drought from Learning Directorate and Dr Julie Aitken, Scottish Clinical Leadership Fellow working with the Chief Medical Officer.

The chair updated the sub-group on the useful meeting that had been held with the professional associations in order to discuss concerns which had been raised by the professional associations about school safety. Contributions had been made by Professor Sridhar, Dr Eileen Scott, Dr Dave Caesar (DCMO), Elizabeth Morrison and herself.  

Minute of meeting on 17 November

It was agreed that the draft note of the discussion on music and drama did not fully reflect the outcome of the meeting.  The Chair invited members to submit any comments on the draft to the secretariat who would update the minute accordingly and recirculate for agreement.


The sub-group was given a presentation on using communication to support behaviour change in schools, looking in particular at how the sub-group might begin the adapt its advice towards a focus on COVID-19 recovery and reducing the inequalities which had been amplified by the pandemic.

Successful interventions to date had included top down guidance, legislative changes, and social and mass media marketing. However, there had also been social media misinformation which cut across and undermined the clear messages about behaviour and public safety.

It was important to consider how to sustain behaviour change over long periods, and counter resistance and fatigue, particularly when the message changes over time, which can be perceived to be inconsistent and overwhelming.

The following points were made during the discussion:

  • try and engage with the public in generating solutions to sustaining behavioural change until the roll-out of the vaccine has been completed
  • draw on implementation science and quality/health improvement more explicitly
  • more needs to be done to implement a bottom-up approach and cascade successes and effective solutions upwards from local to national. There should be more celebration and sharing of creative practice and a recognition of what has worked well
  • we should be looking to capitalise on some of the learning over the last few months, particularly on inequalities and digital inequalities
  • should the remit of the sub-group expand to cover the range of interventions that could be used to compensate for the COVID-19 related harms to the most vulnerable children? Need to consider how much can be done in the recovery year in terms of radical action on educational inequalities as opposed to a more limited sense of recovering to where we were pre-pandemic
  • what more could be done to amplify the voice of children and young people?


  • a task and finish group will be established to carry out some additional consideration of these issues, and bring back proposals to the main sub-group in the new year. Sub-group members were asked to let the secretariat know if they wished to be involved, and the secretariat would set up the first meeting

State of the pandemic

The sub-group was given an update on the latest data on the state of the pandemic in Scotland. The indications were that total infections were continuing to decline, the numbers of confirmed cases had started to fall since the peak in mid-October, and the R number was at the lowest level since August.  

It was important to look at compliance with the guidelines, and this reinforced the need for further work on communication to support behavioural change – as had been discussed in the previous agenda item. There was always a small proportion of the population who found it hard to follow all the guidelines, and this could be for a wide variety of reasons. Understanding the reasons behind non-compliance would make it easier to support people to follow the guidance.  

Concerns were raised about the potential impact of easing restrictions over the holiday period. Sub-group members agreed that it was vitally important to encourage people to behave as conservatively as possible to drive the infection level down as far as possible before the five day relaxation period at Christmas.  

School Christmas and new year holidays

The sub-group was asked to provide advice on possible changes to the school holiday arrangements, for the purpose of reducing social contact and driving down transmission of the virus before and after the planned five day relaxation of restrictions over the festive period. 

The sub-group considered three possible options:

  • maintain the current arrangements, whereby term dates are determined by local authorities and arrangements made in line with local circumstances
  • close school buildings from 18 December (meaning the final day of school activity would be 17 December) and reopen on 11 January throughout Scotland, while maintaining current term dates to provide remote learning on weekdays outwith the planned school holidays
  • close schools and change term dates so that holidays for all schools run from 18 December to 11 January, with no learning or teaching taking place during that period

The sub-group recognised the wide range of factors that needed to be taken into consideration, including the views of education stakeholders, legal requirements, and clinical and public health advice. On balance, the preference was to maintain the current planned Christmas holiday date arrangements.  

The following points were made during the discussion:

  • there was no evidence that schools and ELC settings are driving transmission and, as such, there is no clear rationale for disrupting them and children’s education
  • school closures (even with online learning) would have a disproportionately negative impact on the most vulnerable children, those who are living in poverty, and those who are at risk from domestic violence or child sexual exploitation – both of which had increased since lockdown. For both groups, the  five day relaxation of restrictions over Christmas would bring little benefit, and yet they would be the most adversely affected by a longer period without the regular contact, support, and safeguarding provided by schools
  • closing the schools for a three week period to reduce transmission would be contrary to the existing data which does not, at present, demonstrate that schools and ELC settings are driving infection. The importance of clear communication had been discussed under the previous agenda item, where sub-group members had been concerned that contradictory messaging undermines the general public’s faith in the public health messages which in turn has an impact on compliance with public safety guidelines
  • it was impossible to tell at this stage whether social mixing would be increased or decreased if the school buildings were closed for a longer period over the festive season. However, schools and ELC settings had made considerable efforts to prevent and mitigate COVID-19 related harms, which would not be the case if young people met up outside of school
  • there would be practical difficulties in providing additional childcare for working parents, particularly key workers and those who are unable to work from home

However, the sub-group was concerned about the fatigue of all school staff at the end of what had been a period of enormous effort to ensure that schools remained safe, welcoming and open, and its advice was within the context of school staff being able to take a proper break over the festive period.  


  • alternative arrangements should be put in place for contact tracing for each local authority over the Christmas holidays to minimise any impact on teachers


The Chair confirmed that the meeting planned for 29 December would be cancelled, and that the timing and frequency of future meetings would be discussed at the next meeting.

Date of next meeting

The next meeting will take place on Tuesday 15 December.

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