Coronavirus (COVID-19) Advisory Sub-Group on Universities and Colleges minutes: 21 December 2021

Minutes from the meeting of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Advisory Sub-Group on Universities and Colleges on 21 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 Steve Reicher
  • Prof Ian Rivers


  • Gary Gillespie
  • Kathy Johnston

SG COVID-19 Analysis Division

  • Audrey MacDougall

SG (observing)

  • Craig Robertson
  • Stevie Boal
  • William Quinn
  • Nicolas White
  • Keira McCutcheon
  • Gery McLaughlin
  • Fraser Syme
  • Keith Fernie
  • Iona Dempsie
  • Euan Shields
  • Caroline Pretty


  • John Keenan
  • Sarah Wotton

Items and actions

Welcome and introductions

The meeting was chaired by Linda Bauld. Linda congratulated Marion Bain on her re-appointment as Deputy Chief Medical Officer. The Chair thanked everyone for their participation. Gary Gillespie and Kathy Johnston sent their apologies 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:

  • Linda discussed Mr Hepburn’s letter to university and college principals which acknowledged the work of the COVID-19 Advisory Sub-Group on Universities and Colleges Advice Note for an Early Stage Response to the Omicron Variant of Concern (Advice Note), issued on 10 December. Linda added that this advice note had been welcomed by the sector
  • Linda thanked Audrey MacDougall and her team for updating the Co-determinants of R diagram. The following points were made on the diagram:
    • inequalities, Booster vaccine and antibody data are represented
    • the Omicron variant is now dominant in the UK and the ongoing work on the R value estimate currently places it between three and five
    • distinctions should be made between booster effectiveness and the general vaccine effectiveness against infections
    • international travel data and compliance data should be incorporated e.g. people’s understanding of ventilation and testing. Professor Steve Reicher will email the latest polling data
    • Linda will share the diagram with the Coronavirus (COVID-19): Advanced Learning Recovery Group (CRG) and make amendments
  • Linda attended the CRG meeting on 16 December where a helpful discussion on the Advice Note and Minister’s Letter took place. Colleges are shifting to a cautious approach and mostly moving to online learning provision in the initial weeks of the new term/semester. Universities are currently taking a varied approached. The continuing pressures on the Community Learning and Development (CLD) sector were acknowledged. Linda encouraged members to read the helpful submissions from Colleges Scotland and Universities Scotland
  • members acknowledged the thoughtful, balanced media response from Colleges demonstrating taking responsibility for learning and student care
  • the Strathclyde University Student poll, provided by Matt Crilly, has been shared with members

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 high and there is increasing uptake by individuals in younger age groups. Case rates and hospitalisations remain lowest in the vaccine boosted population
  • there has been a notable increase in case numbers in individuals aged 20 to 39 years old and 18 to 19 year olds. with numbers of Delta cases decreasing and Omicron cases increasing. A large proportion of Omicron cases are occurring in individuals aged 20 to 29 years old. Omicron is becoming the dominant strain in individuals aged 16 to 21 year olds
  • there are initial indications that COVID-19 hospitalisation numbers of children and young people have increased but further monitoring and data are required
  • ONS modelled data, up to 11 December, shows incredibly high daily rates and further data is required to ensure confidence
  • English data, up to 10 December, demonstrates that the highest COVID-19 rates are occurring within primary and secondary school age groups and rates in the college and university age groups are beginning to increase

In discussion, the following points were made:

  • more data is required to understand the severity of Omicron, particularly in relation to hospitalisation rates. Further data on the impact on care homes is also needed
  • many hospitalised individuals have had PCR tests processed by NHS laboratories which do not have detail on S-gene status. To mitigate this, additional Allele Specific PCR testing is now conducted to gather S-gene status. Hospitalisation data does not identify if individuals testing positive for COVID-19 were admitted because of COVID-19. Previous audits have shown that one in three of patients with COVID-19 not admitted because of COVID-19
  • there are no current plans to issue a fourth vaccine dose for vulnerable individuals
  • given the high degree of transmissibility of the Omicron variant, there are concerns about the impact of Omicron on the general workforce including teachers, police and other essential services etc. Even if it is found to be less severe. Modelling of workforce absences is underway for a range of services
  • institutions should consider how they will most effectively manage the impacts of Omicron, which are likely to be felt most in mid-to late-January
  • further restrictions are being introduced to mass events and expansions to the current exemptions of the self-isolation policy are being considered
  • hospitalisation numbers are increasing in London and Denmark. London has a high unvaccinated population and data varies between Boroughs. Enclosed institutions are at higher risks of impact from the transmissibility of the virus and particular care needs to be given to these environments e.g. hospitals, prisons and care homes

Omicron variant management discussion

The Chair summarised the discussion paper and list of courses disrupted earlier in the pandemic. Linda reminded members of the helpful recent submissions to the SG from Colleges Scotland and Universities Scotland. Members welcomed and acknowledged the proactive approach being taken, noting in particular recent media messaging from Colleges. The Chair opened up the discussion.

During the discussion, the following points were made:

  • on supporting students and staff who are self-isolating
    • members are keen to understand what additional support institutions would like to provide to students but are currently unable to offer, and the reasons for this. For example, due to limited resources or lack of clarity about the best approach. Linda will request information from sectors on this at the upcoming Coronavirus (COVID-19): Advanced Learning Recovery Group meeting
    • institutions should ensure that students who are self-isolating have digital access to avoid isolation and lost learning
    • members emphasised the importance of collating and sharing examples of positive practice from institutions. Many examples exist, but these have not been documented in detail. Whilst there has been some hesitancy to document and share this information in the past, the sub-group regarded this as important to facilitate best practice across the sector
    • students who will be self-isolating in term-time accommodation during the winter break will require particular support e.g. buddy schemes. More data would be helpful to understand the numbers of students and how they are affected in university halls and particularly in private accommodation
    • members are interested in examples from students and student bodies about support that students themselves felt had been particularly positive for those self-isolating in 2020 or 2021. National Union of Students (NUS) will be contacted for this information
    • some students who will travel outside the UK have expressed anxiety about the possibility of self-isolation on their return to the UK, particularly any financial implications if hotel quarantine is reinstated. Support for students returning to the UK following the winter break should be considered if current regulations are changed. The COVID-19 Advisory Sub-Group on Universities and Colleges Advice Note for an Early Stage Response to the Omicron Variant of Concern issued on 10 December, emphasises the possible risk to students of not completing their courses, if they choose to travel
    • the possibility of large workforce absences has been discussed with institutions. Some staff who are required to self-isolate may be able to continue working digitally e.g. lecturers, but others providing key services or conducting research on campus could be particularly affected. Therefore, it is important that institutions consider how they should prioritise student and staff support. The impacts of workforce absence may be felt more during and towards the end of January. Scottish Government could explore providing co-ordinated, bespoke advice to institutions who are faced with large workforce absences, if required
    • concerns were raised about research being adversely affected, including lab-based studies due to whole teams becoming COVID-19 positive. The scientific community are currently managing this risk through COVID-19-safe mitigations e.g. physical distancing and PPE. Greater risks arise from staff socialising, particularly together. Previous guidance provided for the research sector should be consulted and any necessary improvements identified
  • on supporting student wellbeing in the context of reduced in-person learning
    • poor mental health is a systemic issue and support should be available for everybody, with additional support for more vulnerable individuals. The sector has worked hard to make this available but the need for this support will continue and may well increase, given accumulated harms. Creating mutual support systems where students work together and support each other could add to support already on offer and help address isolation issues during and beyond the pandemic
    • it is important to identify and share good practice that is already occurring within the sector
    • student support services are very stretched. Institutions should continue to invest in resourcing these services for students with poor mental health and also those with disabilities
    • in person contact with people can support improvements in wellbeing. Face-to-face support for students that require it should be maintained as a matter of priority, even in a context where more teaching and learning may need to be delivered online
  • on testing to entry/access considerations (if implemented)
    • there could potentially be an expansion of the certification scheme in future that may include testing and proof of vaccination being required in a range of settings. Many countries have more expansive certification systems in place than those in Scotland
    • some UK Higher Education institutions already require proof of a negative test to engage with university environments e.g. London Metropolitan University. Logistically this could be challenging for institutions but it may hypothetically avoid further restricting face-to-face learning
    • the University of Strathclyde announced today the expectation that staff and students will test before travelling to campus, socialising indoors and attending crowded places. Professor Ian Rivers will share the university communication about this with members
    • students who are vaccinated and tested before interacting with others on campus will lower the risks of transmission
    • it is essential to develop social norms for all adults in society, not just students, to enable the success of a supportive regular testing and/or certification scheme. This should be done in a supportive fashion, involving co-creation of messaging and emphasising that these behaviours and norms can assist with creating safer spaces and maintaining key activities during the pandemic. Developing social norms and protective behaviours relating to testing is preferable to a scheme that requires the sector to prove that they are conducting checks on negative tests at points of entry to enable access to facilities
    • clear communication would be required about Lateral Flow Tests being a protection but not proof of no infection. Additional protective behaviours are also required. This aligns with current messaging encouraging testing alongside face coverings, hand and respiratory hygiene etc. before in-person interactions
    • testing supply issues may need to be considered
  • on supporting new students and learners starting in January
    • in January, there will be new international students taking up their place at a college or university in Scotland. In addition, there will be a cohort of school leavers who may access learning e.g. at colleges or through CLD provision. For this latter group in particular, previous experience earlier in the pandemic suggests that provision being entirely or mainly online will result in some students and learners dropping out and others struggling with potential longer term consequences
    • the most disadvantaged students and learners need to be considered first to reduce the impact of the wider and long-term harms on these groups
    • collective learning from January 2021 should be accessed as a priority, gathering examples of positive practice from the sector that can be implemented in January 2022 e.g. targeted support for individuals
    • the significant challenges faced by the CLD sector need to be considered, including the ongoing issues around accessing venues and attracting and retaining students, some of whom are from vulnerable groups
  • the SQA should be as flexible as possible when considering the potential disruption to student learning in 2022 e.g. to undertaking placements, practical courses and assessments. SQA need to meaningfully engage with Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Bodies on potential disruptions to student learning and assessments. Louise Hayward (Professor of Educational Assessment and Innovation at the University of Glasgow) could be invited to a future meeting to discuss work on assessment reform
  • the potential for the pandemic to have future waves for several years needs to be taken into account. The sector should consider how it will cope if there are disruptions to education lasting several months in the short term and be proactive and resilient to longer term repeated disruptions, including approaches to assessment. Audrey MacDougall will share the four world scenarios with members to consider future options for each scenario at a meeting in the new year
  • lessons could be drawn from relevant work on simulated placements for social work and also from Estonia, where all public services and key sectors of the economy rapidly moved online earlier in the pandemic

Members were in agreement that a detailed minute of this discussion should be presented to the Coronavirus (COVID-19): Advanced Learning Recovery Group meeting on 23 December 2021.

AOB and close

The Chair brought the meeting to a close and thanked all members for the generosity of their time. The next meeting will be on Wednesday 12 January 2022.


  • Professor Steve Reicher to email the latest polling data
  • Linda to share a detailed minute of the Omicron variant management discussion and the Co-determinants of R diagram with the CRG and make diagram amendments (e.g. include international travel, polling data and extract booster effectiveness and general vaccine effectiveness)
  • contact NUS for feedback on positive support for self-isolating students
  • Linda to request information from sectors at the CRG on additional support institutions would like to provide to students, but are currently unable to offer, and the reasons for this
  • explore mechanisms to collate examples of positive practice throughout the pandemic from the FE/HE/CLD sectors
  • gather data to understand the numbers of students self-isolating over the winter break and how they are affected in university halls and in private accommodation
  • Professor Ian Rivers to share Strathclyde University communication on testing
  • Linda and team to consider inviting Professor Louise Hayward to discuss work on assessment reform
  • Audrey MacDougall to share the four world scenarios
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