Attendees and apologies
Advisory Group members:
- Prof Linda Bauld (Chair)
- Catherine Agnew
- Prof Marion Bain
- Prof Brigid Daniel
- Prof Julie Fitzpatrick
- Gayle Gorman
- Gaenor Hardy
- Prof Devi Sridhar
- Dr Diane Stockton
- Prof Chris Chapman
- Iona Colvin
- Prof Paul Flowers
- Dona Milne
- Dr Eileen Scott
- Prof Ian Rivers
- Victoria Ayre
- Jennifer Bradley
- Victoria Bruce
- Marianne Emler
- Chris Gosling
- Joanna MacDonald
- 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 11 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 increased for 2-17 year olds, with increases being observed among 2-4, 5-11 and 12-15 year olds, and decreases being observed in 16-17 year olds. There had been a slight decline in the percentage of secondary schools with more than nine cases, with an increase in the percentage of primary schools reporting more than nine cases. As of 19 January 85.5% of the population aged 12 and over had received a second dose of the vaccine, with 67.4% having received a booster vaccination.
The rate of hospitalisation increased in the week to 23 January, and increases were seen in all 2-17 year old age groups. There were 132 registered COVID related deaths among the population as a whole in the week to 16 January, an increase of 83% on the previous week. Sub-group members noted that antibodies acquired from a previous Delta infection may be less effective against infection of Omicron than they are for reinfection of Delta.
There was ongoing concern around staffing pressures, particularly in early learning and childcare (ELC) settings where staff are less likely to have received a booster vaccination due to their age profile. It was highlighted that vulnerable children may be more affected by staff shortages, where support staff are covering for other staff absences, and that these pressures may also contribute to staff burnout.
The sub-group considered whether the current mitigations in schools remained both appropriate and proportionate in the light of the fact that the remaining statutory measures introduced in December in response to Omicron had now been lifted.
In discussion, the following points were made:
- it will be useful to monitor the data for England, now that face coverings and other mitigations have been removed in schools and wider society, particularly given the possibility of an ‘exit wave’ following the removal of mitigations
- while it is easy to monitor the numbers of COVID-19 cases in education settings, it is more difficult to measure other factors such as wellbeing and mental health, which may be affected by measures to reduce transmission
- the significant number of young people who have received a second dose of the vaccine, along with all children and young people with antibodies due to recent infection, has further reduced the risk of infection and, in particular, to severe illness
- all else equal, a removal of face covering requirements may result in a greater number of pupil and staff absences due to higher infection rates. Such a change would be likely to have a greater impact on rates of transmission than some other adjustments such as being more permissive regarding school visitors
- it would be helpful to keep the frequency of changes to advice to a minimum where possible to reduce the burden of implementation for staff, and avoid confusion
- it will be important to ensure that asymptomatic testing measures remain proportionate as the approach to the pandemic evolves
The sub-group advised a precautionary, staged approach to the removal of mitigations. They recommended that this should start with a return to the pre-Omicron mitigations in schools as soon as practicable, and maintain a focus on wellbeing, learning and teaching. This would retain the requirement for face coverings to be worn in secondary schools, but relax restrictions on school visitors, and ease requirements for groupings in schools and during school visits where possible.
It was agreed that current measures should remain in place for ELC settings, in light of particularly high case numbers in ELC, with this to be reviewed by the sub-group at their next meeting.
The sub-group reiterated its advice that mitigations in schools should be retained for no longer than is necessary based on the state of the epidemic and evidence about risk, and that there should be a presumption against placing a greater restriction on children and young people than on the rest of society, particularly now that those aged 12 and over are eligible to receive two doses of the vaccine.
There was continued agreement that the requirement to wear face coverings in secondary classrooms should be removed when the data implied lower levels of risk, although we had not yet reached that point. It was suggested that the use of face coverings in communal spaces and when moving around the building in schools and ELC was likely to remain in line with equivalent mitigations in other settings going forward.
- sub-group members to review their advice on mitigations in light of the most recent data at their next meeting
The sub-group discussed the approaching update to the Strategic Framework, which will take a long term approach and focus on living safely with COVID-19, including setting out what adaptations to environment and behaviours may be required. Consideration was given to what this would mean from an education perspective, including moving towards a ‘pandemic proof’ education system.
It was noted that key themes for education might include delivering excellence and equity, access to and use of technology, workforce capacity and resilience, and a continuing focus on good ventilation.
In discussion, the following points were made:
- education is really important, but it is only one aspect of children and young people’s lives. A holistic approach which links education and other support for children, young people and families, will be crucial
- it is also important to stress the role that schools and early learning and childcare (ELC) settings play for learners and wider society. There is an opportunity to build vital public health education, particularly to build understanding of scientific information on how to prevent future pandemics and other public health information. This may help to combat disinformation, and will naturally extend from schools and ELC to adults and communities to some extent
- prioritising re-engagement with families will be essential, particularly in ELC where there was a need to significantly reduce this during the earlier stages of the pandemic
- the disproportionate effects of the wider harms of pandemic on those already experiencing inequality should be noted, including the lower vaccination uptake among disadvantaged groups
- the pandemic is not ‘ending’, and it will be important not to lose sight of the chance that there could be multiple variants still to come
Date of next meeting
The next meeting will be held on 8 February.
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