Attendees and apologies
Advisory group members
- Linda Bauld (Chair)
- Catherine Agnew
- Prof Chris Chapman
- Prof Julie Fitzpatrick
- Prof Paul Flowers
- Gaenor Hardy
- Prof Ian Rivers
- Prof Devi Sridhar
- Prof Marion Bain
- Prof Brigid Daniel.
- Iona Colvin
- Dr Eileen Scott
- Diane Stockton
- Gayle Gorman
- Dona Milne
Public Health Scotland
- Colin Sumpter
- Gillian Hamilton
- Victoria Bruce
- Daniel Kleinberg
- Joanna MacDonald
- Audrey MacDougall
- Alison Cumming
- Carolyn Younie
- Clare Hicks
- Andy Drought
- Judith Tracey
Items and actions
The Chair welcomed members to the meeting and thanked them for taking the time to attend this additional meeting of the sub-group, in order to discuss the return to school and Early Learning and Childcare (ELC) settings in the light of the current high case numbers as a result of the circulation of the Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV virus.
The Chair explained that the meeting would provide an opportunity for the sub-group to discuss the implications for schools and ELC settings of the recent increase in cases, with high numbers of staff and pupils potentially affected either directly or as a consequence of the need to isolate as close contacts.
Review of evidence
The sub-group considered the latest data on the state of the epidemic. There is currently widespread transmission of the virus in Scotland, driven by Omicron that is now the dominant variant. Reported cases following testing have exceeded 10,000 per day fairly consistently since 26 December 2021, and test positivity has been above one in five since then. The latest ONS infection survey up to 31 December estimated that one in twenty people in Scotland had COVID-19.
Although the case numbers have increased hugely, they remain relatively low in children and young people. There is no evidence as yet of an increase in severity of illness in children with Omicron, although this is being monitored. For adults, there is continued evidence that it is a milder infection than Delta overall – it is less likely to result in hospital admission and has low mortality in all age groups. The number of older people infected or in hospital in Scotland remains low, which suggests that the booster programme is having a beneficial impact, but admissions amongst older people in parts of England are rising and clinicians are monitoring the situation closely.
The change to the requirements for a confirmatory PCR test announced by the First Minister on 5 January will have an impact on the data in the short term, as PCR tests have been the mechanism for determining case rates. However it will still be possible to use PCR tests for the purpose of sequencing data as the numbers required for sequencing are not high.
Although lateral flow tests are not as accurate as PCR tests, they are very good at detecting COVID-19 infection when the prevalence of the virus is high i.e. they are much more likely to identify a positive case when there are a lot of positive cases to find, particularly when they are being used to test close or household contacts of a confirmed case.
Key issues for the return of schools and ELC settings
The sub-group considered the immediate key issues for schools and ELC settings as they return from the Christmas break, particularly the implications of increased community transmission due to the Omicron variant. The sub-group welcomed the fact that schools and ELC settings remained open, but recognised the increased risks and the need to do everything possible to reduce the risk of transmission within those setting so that they can continue to operate effectively, and provide a safe space for vulnerable children.
There was concern about the potential impact that high numbers of staff absence caused by either COVID-19 infection or as a consequence of the need to isolate as a close contact would have on schools and ELC settings. It was too early to tell just how significant the workforce pressures might be, but some examples were shared by group members (particularly from ELC settings that have been open in recent weeks) and there was a lot of concern in the system.
The change to the self-isolation requirements for fully vaccinated adults was welcomed, as this would reduce the length of time that staff would be unable to work as long as they had the required negative lateral flow tests. However, some members were concerned that the change was not retrospective, so staff who had tested positive just before the new requirements came into force would still have to isolate for the full ten days. Would it not be better to simply require anyone who is currently isolating to follow the new guidance? It was noted that the previous CNI worker exemption scheme would continue to apply for any staff who were asked to self-isolate prior to the new rules coming into force.
Action– Scottish Government Learning Directorate officials to ensure health officials are made aware of concerns around the issue of non-retrospective application of the self-isolation requirements and the education workforce (although the sub-group did accept that it would only be an issue for a few days before it would resolve itself).
For ELC settings, there was an additional concern that, due to the younger workforce (around a third of the ELC workforce is aged between 16 and 29 years old) fewer ELC staff currently meet the definition of fully vaccinated adult i.e. two doses plus booster, so the change to the self-isolation requirements would not currently be as beneficial in those settings as it was for the older workforce in schools. It will be important to continue to promote and support booster uptake in these groups.
Sub-group members suggested that further thought should be given to creative approaches to managing workforce pressures particularly in the medium term. These could include looking again at General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) registered people within the system who are not currently working as teachers e.g. those working in local authorities and HE/FE settings, and considering whether they could be redeployed to schools temporarily to deal with any staffing crisis. Various options had been considered at the start of the pandemic, but it would be helpful to look at them again to see whether there were any further opportunities for the system to flex in innovative ways in the future.
Action - Scottish Government to revisit the various options that were considered in 2020.
The sub-group also raised the issue of the potential impact that the disruption caused by Omicron might have on young people in the senior phase, and emphasised the importance of ensuring that they were supported properly in the run up to the exam period. Sub-group members were particularly concerned about the impact that time away from school might have on the most disadvantaged and vulnerable pupils, and asked that proper consideration be given to issues of equity when identifying the need for targeted support.
The sub-group then had a discussion about the need to consider the impacts on children and young people of this period of reduced social contact and uncertainty, to help them adapt to the circumstances in front of them. In discussion the following points were made:
- school provides a vital protection for many vulnerable children and young people, in particular it provides a consistent adult presence, warmth, food, shelter, and attention. Virtual interactions can make it more difficult to recognise risks, including child protection issues and signs of domestic abuse
- children and young people being out of school also adds to the stresses in the home that can elevate risk of harm
- many of the predicted wider harms as a result of the pandemic are very much in evidence today, including developmental concerns around communication, social, and emotional needs in very young children, with key developmental milestones being missed. In addition, child protection concerns and inter agency referrals rose significantly after each lockdown, and there has been an increase in concern around child and adolescent mental health. New national child protection guidance has been put in place to create a more standardised approach across Scotland to dealing with those in the most vulnerable situations
- we now have the evidence of the impact that school closures and the wider pandemic has had on children and young people, and we have reached a point where the balance of harms is leaning towards the wider educational, social and developmental harms. These are becoming more of a concern than the immediate health harms, particularly for children and young people. These wider harms need to be included in any decisions around managing the pandemic, including considerations around vaccinating children and young people in the five to eleven age category
Date of next meeting
The next meeting will be held on 11 January.
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