Coronavirus (COVID-19) Advisory Sub-Group on Universities and Colleges minutes: 31 August 2021

Minutes from the meeting of the group on 31 August 2021.

Attendees and apologies

Advisory Group members

  • Prof Carol Tannahill (Chair)

  • Prof Marion Bain
  • Prof Chris Chapman
  • Prof Brigid Daniel 
  • Prof Julie Fitzpatrick
  • Prof Paul Flowers
  • Dr Ellie Hothersall
  • Linda McKay
  • Prof Stephen Reicher
  • Prof Devi Sridhar
  • Dr Diane Stockton


  • Gary Gillespie

  • Prof Ian Rivers

Public Health Scotland

  • Eileen Scott

SG Covid Analysis Division

  • Audrey MacDougall

SG (observing)

  • Prof Linda Bauld

  • Stevie Boal
  • Louise Feenie
  • Keith Fernie
  • Daniel Kleinberg
  • Jamie MacDougall
  • Pamela McBride
  • Fiona McDiarmid
  • Nicolas White


  • Idris Akormadu

  • John Keenan
  • Fraser Syme

Items and actions

1. Welcome and introductions

The meeting was chaired by Carol Tannahill. The Chair thanked everyone for their participation and welcomed new member Ellie Hothersall, replacing Dona Milne as the Director of Public Health on the group.  Sincere thanks were expressed to Dona for her contributions. The Chair also introduced and welcomed Linda Bauld who will be taking over the role of the Chair at the end of September and was attending this meeting as an observer.

2. 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.

Colleges and universities have been providing returns to SG outlining their plans for the next academic year – these are still being received so have yet to be fully analysed.

In discussion the following points were made:

  • sharing these plans across the sectors would be helpful in terms of transparency and sharing good practice – holding a repository of plans was one of the suggestions which came out of the roundtable events hosted by Professors Flowers and Reicher
  • although resource constraints mean that public health teams and Public Health Scotland are unable to review all the plans, local discussions with institutions are viewed as helpful and can be highly beneficial

3. Modelling: projections for start of the next academic year: Audrey MacDougall SG Covid Analysis Division

Audrey MacDougall delivered a presentation on recent modelling outputs. The recent uptick in cases is unlikely to be short-lived. Modelling of a slower student return suggested it could reduce pressure on Test and Protect and on hospitalisations, but this reduction would be likely to be relatively modest due to current high levels of community transmission. Contact patterns have increased which has been largely driven by people returning to the workplace.

In discussion the following points were made:

  • although contact data relies on the details that people input online, it would be useful if a breakdown of student contacts could be provided i.e. where they are making contact with others (on campus, in accommodation, in part-time work etc). Audrey will investigate what data can be provided.
  • test and Protect is under strain and there are concerns about breaching hospital bed capacity. ICU capacity is currently less of a concern.

4. Student surveillance dashboard (update): Eileen Scott, Public Health Scotland

Eileen Scott summarised the latest figures, vaccine uptake, testing outcomes, incidents in HE/FE, seroprevalence of antibodies, symptom surveillance and outcomes.

In discussion the following points were made:

  • it would be helpful to understand the reasons behind the u-shaped pattern of vaccine uptake by ‘deprivation’. Understanding different uptake levels by gender would also be helpful.
  • it was agreed that it is too late to recommend delaying students returning for the new academic year, but with most colleges having now returned, there may be useful learning from their experiences of the start of term. 
  • to help slow transmission, there are a number of options such as vaccine mandates (for places where transmission is likely such as pubs and clubs), and offering incentives to be vaccinated. The role of these approaches should be informed by behaviour science and evidence.

5. Discussion on “Paper 6.5: Mitigations in Universities and Colleges for the 21/22 Academic Year”

Jamie MacDougall (SG Vaccines Policy) gave a presentation which highlighted that there has been greater success in  vaccination uptake among older age groups. The rationale for younger people’s slower uptake of vaccinations is not clear – it does not appear to be linked to education or deprivation, for example. Health Boards are targeting local pop-up centres in order to make vaccination as easy as possible for young people. Single Points of Contact (SPoC) have been identified for institutions, and international students who are not fully vaccinated will be offered vaccinations upon their arrival.

In discussion the following points were made:

  • offering incentives to be vaccinated may not work as people can be suspicious of incentives, believing them to be about control. It may be more helpful if there is strong messaging around being fully vaccinated is about a duty of care to ourselves and to each other.
  • there has been a general misconception that under 40s are relatively immune to Covid-19 disease, however, hospitalisation rates are now increasing among this age group. Messaging about the important protective effects is crucial.
  • the situation now is quite different to last year as hospital capacity is strained due to non-Covid pressures and backlogs.

Fiona McDiarmid (SG Testing Policy) gave a presentation outlining the demand for PCR tests, and that new LFD testing kits are available requiring only a nasal swab (no longer a throat swab required) which makes these tests more appealing. A key message for students is that in order to receive confirmation of a test result, the test has to be reported. Guidance is being updated in relation to testing requirements for students arriving from the rest of the UK.

In discussion the following points were made:

  • it is important that students know that they will not be disadvantaged in any way should they return a positive test.
  • the importance of the role of student bodies in relation to an effective communication strategy was emphasised.

6. AOB and close

Members should be aware that a public inquiry has been announced into SG’s handling of the Covid pandemic and the work of this group will be relevant to the inquiry.

Members were asked to volunteer to join a small group tasked with producing bespoke guidance relating to student placements.

In discussion the following points were made:

  • college and university staff have concerns about returning to their workplaces and this should be considered at a future meeting, to ensure appropriate advice is available.
  • there was broad agreement from the group that additional restrictions over and above those already advised would not be fair nor proportionate.
  • many students will have had their last years of school disrupted by the pandemic and may not have experience of sitting exams, for example, and may therefore require additional support. The advisory group recognised the need to ensure that appropriate responses were being put in place.

It was agreed that these meetings will be extended to two hours in future and that a forward work plan will be developed to cover suggested future topics of discussion.

The Chair brought the meeting to a close.

The next meeting will be on Tuesday 14th September.


  • SG to bring analysis of institutions’ plans to the next meeting
  • Audrey MacDougall to investigate what data can be provided on student contacts
  • ‘deep dive’ session to be held on communications and messaging, including vaccination incentives
  • meeting to be arranged to consider next steps following on from the Covid Messaging for Students Roundtable Event
  • group to be formed looking at student placements – Prof Chris Chapman and Prof Brigid Daniel volunteered to take part
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