Coronavirus (COVID 19): Advisory Sub-Group on Universities and Colleges: 7 December 2021

Minutes from the meeting of the Coronavirus (COVID 19) Advisory Sub-Group on Universities and Colleges on 7 December 2021.

Attendees and apologies

Advisory Group members

  • Prof Linda Bauld (Chair)
  • Prof Brigid Daniel 
  • Prof Paul Flowers
  • Prof Marion Bain
  • Prof Julie Fitzpatrick
  • Dr Ellie Hothersall
  • Prof Chris Chapman
  • Dr Diane Stockton
  • Prof Steven Reicher
  • Kathy Johnston (standing in for Gary Gillespie)
  • Prof Devi Sridhar
  • Prof Ian Rivers

SG Covid Analysis Division

  • Audrey MacDougall

SG Covid Vaccination and Strategic Communications Division

  • Andrew Gilchrist
  • David Hamilton

SG (observing)

  • Craig Robertson
  • Stevie Boal
  • Alan Sloan
  • William Quinn
  • Holly Takenzire
  • Nicolas White
  • Alistair Imlach
  • Keira McCutcheon
  • Gery McLaughlin
  • Idris Akormadu
  • Fraser Syme
  • Keith Fernie


  • John Keenan
  • Sarah Wotton

Items and actions

Welcome and introductions

The meeting was chaired by Linda Bauld. The Chair thanked everyone for their participation and welcomed David Hamilton and Andrew Gilchrist. No apologies were received for the meeting.

Minutes of last meeting and matters arising

Sub-group members were asked for any comments on the draft minutes. All were content for the minutes to be published online.

The Chair updated members on the following engagements:

  • Linda attended the COVID-19 Advanced Learning Recovery Group. The emergence of Omicron, concerns about Semester two plans, vaccine uptake and messaging on regular testing were discussed
  • Linda and Sarah attended the CLD Standards Council Scotland Members’ Conference. It was useful to hear sector concerns over lack of access to facilities as well as concerns for particular groups of learners

The Chair provided an update on actions from the previous meeting:

  • Linda updated the Co-determinants of R diagram
  • Matt Crilly shared the Strathclyde University Student Poll, which will be circulated with the group
  • members are encouraged to read the Wider Harms submissions and thanks were given to Ian for sharing the Online in Lockdown paper

Modelling: projections for the AY

Audrey MacDougall delivered a presentation on recent modelling outputs for the Omicron variant summarising that:

  • modelled estimates of the doubling times of Omicron show that it could be the dominant strain by the start of the new year. Even with no vaccine escape, there could be high case numbers and concern was raised about NHS pressures in both scenarios
  • early indications suggest increased transmissibility and possible vaccine escape but more data is required. More information is required about Omicron severity to establish the case hospitalisation conversion rate which is approximately 3% for the Delta variant
  • differences exist between Scotland and South Africa that need to be considered e.g. demographics, health status of the population and methods for recording data. There was an increase in the hospitalisation of children in South Africa but this does not appear to be a continuing trend and is under review
  • workforce implications, from many absences due to ill health and isolation, need to be considered in terms of impacts on services. People are likely to be infected at a higher rate, including vaccinated individuals
  • vaccines and boosters need to be encouraged. Lateral Flow testing and reducing an individual’s number of contacts should be considered

In discussion, the following points were made:

  • Lateral Flow testing is accurate for S-gene drop out and 96% of PCR tests show S-gene status. NHS laboratories have lower ability to test for S-gene drop out impacting on data collection of Omicron hospitalisation numbers.
  • it is appearing highly likely, that across the UK, there will be a wave of Omicron infection. Most cases within the UK are transmitting within households and there are limited numbers of cases arising through travel
  • there is an estimated doubling rate of two to three days meaning case rates will rise quickly. Modellers require more data to identify the impacts of increased transmissibility and immune escape, and both are being investigated
  • UK modelling suggests a best case scenario of a hospitalisations peaking in January, and are of a similar size to the peak in January 2021. The worst case scenario could be three to four times larger. We should prepare for a challenging situation emerging in our health service and workforce and consider additional impacts e.g. Long Covid
  • changes at population level are required to reduce transmissibility. Ventilation in small indoor spaces and Lateral Flow testing should be emphasised
  • local health protection teams are using short-term interventions to slow the transmission of Omicron to enable further data collection and the vaccination of more individuals. When a case is identified through a PCR test with S-gene drop out, all close contacts of the positive individual are identified and will all have to isolate for 10 days. In some cases, the household of identified contacts will also need to isolate until they receive a negative PCR test
  • there is limited information on the characteristics of mass events that have led to COVID-19 spread e.g. if face coverings and ventilation were used

Student surveillance dashboard update

Diane Stockton summarised the latest figures, vaccine uptake, testing outcomes, incidents in FE/HE, symptom surveillance and outcomes

  • booster vaccine uptake in individuals aged over 60 years old is over 80%. This has attributed to a decline in hospitalisations in individuals of this age
  • uptake of the first vaccine varies across deprivation groups, particularly for individuals aged under 18 years old.
  • hospital admission rates have remained constant for six weeks for individuals aged 21 years old and under. Individuals are four times more likely to be hospitalised if they are unvaccinated compared to vaccinated
  • case numbers were declining but have started to increase in individuals aged under 60 years old, which are likely to be Omicron cases. There is a marked increase in individuals aged 16 to 17 years old, which may be due to vaccine waning
  • antibody levels for individuals aged 16 to 25 years old are estimated to be 95%

In discussion, the following points were made:

  • the international view is that Omicron is more transmissible and disease severity is unknown. Omicron may be spreading more easily than previous variants between vaccinated individuals

Omicron variant management discussion

Linda summarised the discussion paper and opened up the discussion with a request for comments on immediate actions that institutions could take.

During the discussion, the following points were made:

  • there is no sector specific data on compliance with COVID-19 measures but data may exist on compliance by age and education level. Anecdotally, compliance is good in education settings. Evidence to identify additional risks and protective factors within the sectors should be considered. It is important to acknowledge the levels of compliance that already exist
  • linking communication to group norms and cultures can be successful. Limiting socialising and having a negative test before any collective event should be considered
  • the timing of advice is important as it is near the end of the first semester. Advice for students regarding the return to campus in January needs to be considered as modelling shows that there is likely to be a significant increase in COVID-19 cases. Institutions need to be asked about their plans for the second semester for continuing students and international January starts
  • members should advise of the risks and consequences to travelling e.g. students may not be able to continue with their education if they travel to certain countries and are unable return and there are financial implications of quarantine. The sector may find these impacts challenging to cope with
  • staff who were able to work from home previously may be required to do so again. This will have implications for the sector and on face-to-face teaching. In a worst case scenario, extreme measures may be needed in January across society including a reduction in face-to-face teaching
  • Universities are sometimes viewed as work places and sometimes as education settings but they have elements of both. Inconsistencies with other education settings should be managed. All stakeholders within an institution need to be considered e.g. all staff and students
  • rebranding of COVID-19 marketing materials could be considered to highlight the differences between the Delta and Omicron situations
  • clarification is required about the definition of close contacts regarding isolation. There is concern about isolation requirements and widespread absences impacting on the sector. Institutions need to urgently consider how they are supporting workers to isolate without negative financial implications
  • there is now greater awareness of the wider harms of COVID-19 and members should be clear about the implications
  • testing is vital to prevent people who are infectious entering enclosed spaces. Considerations should be given to demonstrating a negative Lateral Flow Test to participate in communal activities e.g. lectures and events. To enable successful self-testing, promotion within a communicative and normative context needs to occur e.g. supported by peers, creating testing champions, using social networks, whilst considering inequalities. If certification is extended, discussions need to take place with institutions
  • institutions should proactively consider how they are supporting the mental health of staff and students
  • preservation of institutional activity is important and institutions should consider what constitutes essential activity
  • every effort should be made to retain ongoing essential research. There is a need to revisit previous guidance documents to ensure appropriate research can continue safely
  • any ethical guidance and protocols from institutions regarding face-to-face and social research would be welcome from members

COVID-19 vaccine communications

Linda introduced David Hamilton, Head of Unit for Covid Vaccination, and Andrew Gilchrist, Marketing team at Scottish Government.

During the discussion, the following points were made:

  • 70% of individuals aged 18 to 29 years old have had a second dose and 78% of individuals aged 16 to 17 years old have a first dose. Uptake has been stalling at a high level
  • the Booster vaccine programme currently focusses on individuals aged 40 to 59 years old. Invites to book via the portal are encouraged using direct lettering, generic lettering and texts
  • it is important that students and staff are vaccinated. e.g. last summer, there was targeted activity working with NUS and other organisations. Generic material is available and specific materials can be produced to reach this audience requiring creativity and innovation
  • vaccination, testing and the concept of a collective purpose remain strong messages in upcoming marketing materials. Stakeholder toolkits will be available

During the discussion, the following points were made:

  • consideration needs to be given to a communications rebranding in light of the Omicron variant
  • new approaches to promote to unvaccinated individuals are required e.g. working with social networks, preferably not digitally, connecting with local student opinion leaders from the demographics of unvaccinated individuals
  • David will inform the Test and Protect markeing team about this discussion
  • members shared concern about structural access issues e.g. an easy to use portal, transport links and time
  • strong communications about Lateral Flow Testing at the population level are important
  • members can support with communications on vaccination. David welcomes any additional comments from members via email

AOB and close

The Chair brought the meeting to a close. The next meeting will be on Tuesday 21 December 2021.


  • Sarah will share the Strathclyde University Student Poll with members
  • members are encouraged to read the Wider Harms Submissions that have been received
  • David will share points raised with the Test and Protect marketing team
  • members offered to support with communications on vaccination and can share additional comments via email to David
  • write an Advice Note for an Early Stage Response to the Omicron Variant of Concern
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