Coronavirus (COVID-19) Advisory Sub-Group on Universities and Colleges minutes: 1 February 2022

Minutes from the meeting of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Advisory Sub-Group on Universities and Colleges on 2 February.

Attendees and apologies

Advisory Group members

  • Prof Linda Bauld (Chair)
  • Prof Brigid Daniel 
  • Prof Paul Flowers
  • Prof Marion Bain
  • Prof Julie Fitzpatrick
  • Prof Chris Chapman
  • Dr Diane Stockton
  • Prof Steve Reicher
  • Prof Ian Rivers
  • Jon Vincent
  • Eileen Scott
  • Dr Ellie Hothersall
  • Devi Sridhar
  • SG Covid Analysis Division:
  • Audrey MacDougall
  • Brett MacGillivray

SG (observing)

  • Craig Robertson
  • Stevie Boal
  • William Quinn
  • Holly Takenzire
  • Alistair Imlach
  • Alan Sloan
  • Idris Akormadu
  • Steven Scott
  • Marianne Emler
  • Keira McCutcheon
  • Fraser Syme
  • Nicolas White
  • Caroline Pretty


  • John Keenan
  • Sarah Wotton

Items and actions

Welcome and introductions

The meeting was chaired by Linda Bauld. Linda welcomed Jon Vincent to the group, a temporary member with expertise in mental health, the college sector and Community Learning and Development. The Chair thanked everyone for their participation and acknowledged that some members need to leave early.

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:

  • Linda outlined the current COVID-19 context stating we are likely in the middle of the pandemic journey in the transition period towards its endemic phase. Scottish Government are developing a new Strategic Framework and members should consider capturing best practice
  • David Belsey and Caroline Pretty shared documents that are on Slack
  • face coverings use in schools is under review. In the future, the requirement to wear them may be removed. If this occurs members will consider how this impacts on higher education space
  • some stakeholders have expressed to Government that they would like to see the removal of guidance
  • a thematic analysis of the Wider Harms Paper will be conducted. Members raised that the inclusion of data should be considered and the content is interesting
  • the Co-determinants of R diagram was updated. Linda summarised:
    • the R value is below one with a wide range of growth rate estimates
    • the effect on the level of infection with the student return is unknown and there wasn’t a mass return to campuses. Many students are continuing to study online
    • the Bristol Conquest Study evidences an increase in students’ daily contacts in England to 14
    • there remains good engagement with regular lateral flow testing
    • studies show a significantly higher risk of household transmission with Omicron. The BA.2 variant of Omicron appears to have a growth advantage

Student surveillance dashboard update

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

  • recently, there has been a slight increase in cases in individuals aged 18 to 19 years old. This age group has seen a decline in PCR only cases and there are low numbers of cases confirmed by lateral flow testing
  • hospital admissions are declining and the largest numbers of cases continue to be in older aged groups. COVID-19 confirmed deaths are declining
  • the ONS modelling showed declining rates for individuals aged 19 to 22 years old. College and University cohort rates in England are declining
  • one in 30 people in Scotland are estimated to have COVID-19 and antibody rates for 16 to 25 year olds in Scotland are estimated to be 91%
  • 83% of individuals aged 17 to 21 years old have had their first vaccine, 72% have had their second vaccine and 39% have had their booster vaccine. There is low booster uptake in younger, deprived populations
  • vaccination and prior infection provides lower protection against infection for the Omicron variant compared to Delta. Individuals are four times more likely to be hospitalised if they are unvaccinated compared to those having the booster vaccine

In discussion, the following points were made:

  • England’s reinfection rate for Omicron is approximately 10%, higher than for Delta. Public Health Scotland are publishing data on reinfections
  • the booster vaccine maintains vaccine effectiveness after six months. Vaccine waning for the first and second vaccine dose occurred in less time. Audrey MacDougall will share a paper on vaccine waning with members

Modelling: projections for the AY

Audrey MacDougall updated members on recent modelling outputs summarising that:

  • if all restrictions were lifted on 7 February, modelling shows that there would be increased levels of infection and possibly some additional pressures on the health service. Overall, the situation is becoming less severe
  • the modelling team are working on modelling future scenarios and a comparison of Scotland with Denmark

In discussion, the following points were made:

  • Denmark has interesting data on trust and behaviours and are lifting all restrictions
  • the Scottish Contact Survey informs existing modelling. Work is being done to develop Agent-Based Modelling. Members are interested in modelled data in relation to varying contact numbers per week and lateral flow testing, to help with public behaviour messaging
  • members expressed an interest in the modelled data on the movement of students nationally and internationally as travel had impacted on the pandemic in the past

Four Worlds COVID-19 modelling

Brett MacGillivray delivered a presentation on the modelling of possible futures for COVID-19 summarising that:

  • modelled scenarios are intended as a planning tool and they assume no changes to current restrictions. The possible modelled scenarios include: Immune World (high levels of natural and vaccine immunity with no impact from waning); Variant World (a new variant emerges with high case numbers and pressures on healthcare systems and wider society); Waning World (vaccine waning and people are not offered a booster or there is limited booster vaccine uptake) and Polarised World (a portion of the population adhere to guidance and others do not)
  • the Immune World scenario is the best case scenario. Infections could be below 1000 per day, hospital and ICU occupancy and deaths remain low. Planning is required to consider a future where COVID-19 becomes endemic and testing and self-isolation are used
  • in the Variant World scenario, the worst case scenario, a new variant emerges. A modelled variant with Delta characteristics and Omicron levels of vaccine escape and transmission could lead to a peak similar to Omicron and a high peak of hospitalisations due to variant severity. This would lead to pressure on healthcare and other sectors and high staff absence

In discussion, the following points were made:

  • Audrey MacDougall will share the Four Worlds slides with members for internal use only until publication alongside the updated Strategic Framework
  • the possible scenarios need to be considered in the context of each sector
  • the work could be used as a public health tool and to communicate possible future scenarios, highlighting that uncertainty remains
  • members found the presentation helpful and would like to see more on this. The presented scenarios relate to the world of Scottish society. Considering global world scenarios is particularly relevant to sector planning for international students. Members would welcome modelling of international and national interactions impacting on the university and college sectors and wider society
  • in 2020, international travel by students was modelled. Modelling could be updated with severity variations but assumptions would be made about student vaccination status to support facilitating international students travelling whilst ensuring that they are not stigmatised. Global and domestic travel impacts would need to be considered

Adapting to live alongside COVID-19

The Chair summarised the discussion paper and referenced the Welsh Government Guidance for the Higher Education Sector.

During the discussion, the following points were made:

  • members welcomed the Welsh Government guidance. Recommendations for students should be in line with wider societal restrictions
  • members were in agreement that a broad framework would be preferential to prescriptive guidance. A framework and toolkit should be accompanied by local level engagement to support sector application and the development of local solutions. Clear communications with necessary sector stakeholders and decision-makers would be required e.g. regular local seminars, discussions on technology requirements to enable students to continue learning and monitoring requirements
  • there is movement away from particular restrictions towards a focus on information, protection and support. Sector specific guidance assumes homogeny between providers but there is variation
  • forums for genuine engagement, dialogue and discussion with the sectors would be welcome to support communication at both national and local levels in addition to broader engagement with representational stakeholder groups
  • the most vulnerable staff and students should continue to be protected
  • developing a co-constructed framework is important involving the sectors
  • members agreed that face-to-face teaching should be the default for many courses where this form of teaching is optimal on educational grounds. The speed of achieving a return to face-to-face teaching in a safe context needs to be considered
  • online delivery is optimal for some elements of educational delivery. Gains in online delivery during the pandemic should be utilised and communicated as part of a flexible offer, where appropriate. It avoids travel and time costs for some students and gives flexibility enabling some students to work. This is of particular benefit for more impoverished students. Digital approaches have also benefited support services e.g. counselling services
  • non-pharmaceutical intervention compliance such as face coverings, use of one-way systems etc. has reduced in some institutions and is causing concern for some staff. Working with the student unions and students to ensure the maintenance of COVID-19 safe behaviours is important
  • dropout rates for colleges, especially among more deprived students, reinforces the need for students to return to face-to-face learning
  • consideration needs to be given to maintain distance learning for vulnerable students when their classes return to face-to-face teaching through a preferable synchronous hybrid learning model facilitated by appropriate digital infrastructure. Not all institutions have the digital technology in place
  • institutions in Israel previously allowed students who were double vaccinated to attend lecture halls whilst providing an online alternative for other students
  • investment has been made to provide digital devices and infrastructure during the pandemic. Consideration needs to be given to how this level of support will be provided for future cohorts of students, if the digital offer is retained, as many students lack access to broadband and digital equipment
  • international learning from countries such as Estonia and Israel could support how the sector provides digital learning in addition to face-to-face learning
  • the importance of face-to-face social interactions was recognised during the pandemic. Students require opportunities to meet each other and make connections, particularly younger students
  • members recommend that institutions have a COVID-19 Response committee and maintain outbreak management and business continuity plans

Members agreed that an advice note summarising this discussion will be presented to the Coronavirus (COVID-19): Advanced Learning Recovery Group.

AOB and close

The next meeting will be on Tuesday 15 February 2022. Professor Louise Hayward will attend to discuss assessment reform. Members are invited to share any questions in advance of the meeting.

The Chair reminded all members to update the Register of Interests and brought the meeting to a close, thanking all members for their time.


  • Audrey MacDougall to share Four Worlds Modelling slides and Vaccine waning paper with members
  • a thematic analysis will be conducted on the current Wider Harms paper
  • an Advice Note will be produced summarising the ‘Adapting to Live alongside COVID-19’ discussion
  • all members to update the Register of Interests
  • members are invited to share any questions for Professor Louise Hayward
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