No modelled evidence to support new Covid rules for schools, Jenny Harries tells union bosses

No modelled evidence to support new Covid rules for schools, Jenny Harries tells union bosses

No modelled evidence to support new Covid rules for schools, Jenny Harries tells union bosses

Dr Jenny Harries, a senior government health official, has admitted to union bosses that there is no modelled evidence behind the new Covid rules introduced for schools, The Independent understands.

Earlier this week, education secretary Gavin Williamson announced a series of changes for how early years settings, schools and colleges will handle Covid-19 infections.

This includes the scrapping of staggered school days, masks and the bubble system, which forces whole classes or year groups into home isolation if a child tests positive.

Although education leaders have grown increasingly frustrated with the disruptions caused by the school bubbles, they are concerned that children’s safety could be compromised under the new guidance set out by the government, and have urged the Department for Education (DfE) to lay out the science behind the proposed system.

However, in a meeting held between teacher union bosses and the DfE on Wednesday, Dr Harries, the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, said there was no robust modelling for the strategy.

She explained that the variation in localised transmission and vaccine coverage had made it difficult to predict the impact of the virus in schools under the new measures, and that a balance-based decision had instead been taken to scrap the old rules and introduce a different approach.

It was emphasised that because of the high vaccination coverage, which has lessened the prevalence of disease, the government was able and willing to progress to a position that minimises disruption to education.

Some union leaders are understood to have been angered by the lack of evidence, and are continuing talks with the DfE to ensure that children and teachers will be kept safe under the new system.

The National Education Union (NEU) has called on the education secretary to project the number of children that will contract Covid-19 due to relaxations during the autumn term.

In a letter published by the NEU, joint general secretaries Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney said: “We are asking these questions because we believe that should cases continue to rise, with negative health consequences in the autumn term, that you have a plan and can act quickly and decisively. We all know the results of dither and delay.”

From September, secondary schools will test pupils twice on their return and encourage home tests, but after that, tracking contacts will be left to NHS Test and Trace.

Pupils who are designated as contacts of people infected with Covid will be recommended to carry out a PCR test, but will be able to remain in school while this is carried out.

However, reviews into the policy are ongoing, and Test and Trace may not consider those in schools as contacts unless there is a major outbreak, The Independent understands. Unions have therefore asked the DfE to urgently clarify the definition of what “contact” means within the school setting.

Children will still have to self-isolate if they test positive, while it will no longer be necessary to stagger start and finish times, or social distance and wear a mask in school.

The new rules technically come into place from 19 July, meaning children can attend summer camps and activities without the previous restrictions in place.

Hundreds of thousands of children in England have missed school lessons in recent months due to the Covid bubble system.

More than 640,000 pupils were absent due to Covid-related reasons last week – up from about 384,000 the week before, and 250,000 a fortnight earlier.

Prime minister Boris Johnson confirmed the new school measures on Monday, saying they were part of the plan for “living with Covid”.

Mr Williamson said: “We recognise the system of bubbles and isolation is causing disruption to many children’s education. That is why we’ll be ending bubbles and transferring contact tracing to the NHS Test and Trace system for early years settings, schools and colleges.”

Some union leaders have criticised the scrapping of bubbles. Mr Courtney said: “It seems clear the government policies are based on a new form of herd immunity strategy.”

One union source their body had “no love for the bubbles” but insisted an effective system was needed in its place to control the spread of the virus and ensure children and teachers are kept safe. “We want to see the rationale behind the new policy,” the union figure said.

A DfE spokesperson said: “Our priority is for schools and colleges to deliver face-to-face, high-quality education to all pupils as we know that being out of education causes significant harm to educational attainment, life chances, mental and physical health.

“The government has balanced education and health considerations, weighing the impact of Covid measures on teaching, education and wellbeing, against the Covid risks that have now changed due to the success of the vaccination rollout.

“We will continue to keep these measures under review, in partnership with health experts and informed by the latest scientific evidence and advice.”

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