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Covid-19: Schools

Volume 803: debated on Wednesday 20 May 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to publish scientific evidence which (1) ensures the re-opening schools on 1 June will be safe for pupils, staff and parents, and (2) includes the impact on the (a) national, and (b) regional, reproduction rates (R number) of COVID-19.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

My Lords, the first two batches of SAGE papers were released on 20 March and 5 May. Further batches will be released shortly. From the week commencing 1 June, we hope to welcome back more children to early years, schools and further education, provided that the Government’s five key tests justify the changes at that time.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply, but I have to say that it is somewhat vague. This is National Thank a Teacher Day: a national campaign to record our gratitude to teachers and school support staff. This year, it also embraces the millions of parents and carers thrust into the role of temporary teachers during school closures. The Minister will have seen today that various local authorities across England are now advising schools in their area not to open. With Public Health England having said that R values vary across different regions, it is difficult to understand the logic of the Government’s decision that schools should reopen nationwide on 1 June. Will the Minister reveal to noble Lords what the Government’s scientific evidence says about reopening schools in communities which have an R value that is closer to 1 than the average?

I join the noble Lord in thanking all of our teachers and draw attention to the fact that 80% of education settings are open for vulnerable children and the children of critical workers. I applaud their hard work. The R rate is not broken down regionally and is not published in that form. It is a UK-wide estimate range which is published each week. The individual modelling groups include epidemiological information on the intensive care unit rate of admissions, the death rate and the rate of hospital admissions. It is an average value that can vary across communities, but it is not published on a regional basis.

My Lords, in order to assist local authorities that are reluctant to reopen schools, will my noble friend consider publishing the Government’s assessment of the effects of a prolonged school lockdown on the emotional, educational and economic chances of disadvantaged children?

My Lords, it is obvious that the good and protective factor that a school provides to children cannot be replaced. I assure my noble friend that in making this decision, consideration was given to the future education and social outcomes for children, alongside the health and epidemiological information and data. We are deeply concerned about the effect of continued school closures, particularly on disadvantaged pupils, and are looking at a range of interventions to help them catch up.

My Lords, did the Minister agree with the Government’s Deputy Chief Scientific Adviser when she added another condition, saying that Ministers have been told that changes to lockdown would require an effective system for tracing and isolating to be in place? She went on to say that changes should be based on observed levels of infection, not a fixed date. How does this affect schools?

When the Government announced the five tests to be satisfied to plan for reopening on 1 June, we also included the enabling programmes mentioned in the road map. This includes the contact-tracing system. Testing has been ramped up, with a view to being able to introduce a “track and trace” system. This is in accordance with the scientific advice we have.

My Lords, I refer the House to my entry in the register of interests in relation to the National Education Union. Speaking in another place on 13 May, the Secretary of State said he was happy to share all advice received from SAGE. The National Education Union has analysed the SAGE evidence and papers available on GOV.UK. Most of the evidence explicitly relating to children and education—80% of it; nine out of 11 papers—is unpublished. SAGE has not published any evidence for over a week, at a time when critical decisions are being taken, and there is no record of SAGE papers for the last month, published or unpublished. Will the Minister urge the Government to expedite the publication of all scientific advice and evidence, in particular relating to “test, track, trace and isolate”, to try to build confidence among the public, parents and the education workforce in how schools could open to more children and students safely, bearing in mind that, as she said, schools are generally open for vulnerable children and the children of key workers and that teachers not in schools are at present teaching their pupils both online and through a variety of means?

My Lords, the Secretary of State outlined that the evidence will be published. As I have said, the latest updates from SAGE have been published; the latest was on 5 May. We are committed to transparency and enabling access to the evidence on which we rely. On that evidence, Public Health England’s guidance to us is that there can be a hierarchy of controls in schools, beginning with nobody symptomatic being in schools. Once those controls are in place, we can substantially reduce the risk of transmission in education settings.

My Lords, Germany closed its schools within three weeks of its first case being identified. This and its very early “test, trace and isolate” strategy appear to account for its remarkable success in controlling deaths from Covid. Does the Minister agree that schools should reopen only in areas with a capacity to test, trace and isolate absolutely fully across the community, so that if a child in a school is identified as having Covid, the school could close for 14 days, then reopen and press on with its wonderful work?

My Lords, we are seeking to learn from the experience of other countries but this is a disease and it is affecting populations in different ways so we will be introducing a track, trace and test system in the UK that is specific to our community and to the NHS. Indeed, if any child or staff member becomes symptomatic they are to go home and isolate for seven days, and they and their families will be able to get a test. If that proves positive then, with the reduced class sizes of 15 who are not intermingling in the school, or at least not intermingling as much as possible, the disease can be contained. If there is an outbreak within a particular setting, the Public Health England local health planning scheme will be advising schools on that issue.

My Lords, as with many schools, Church of England schools have remained open during the lockdown for the children of key workers and vulnerable children. Our teachers are working extremely hard to provide educational and pastoral support to our students at this time of unprecedented challenge. Can the Minister confirm whether school leaders will be granted the discretion to reopen at a pace dictated by their local circumstances and context, considering the significant mental, spiritual, physical and social impact that the current situation is having on children, especially those from the most disadvantaged and vulnerable families?

My Lords, school leaders, teachers and support staff are indeed concerned about the education of their children and have been undertaking risk assessments in relation to whether vulnerable children are better off at home or in a school setting. We are of course aware that each school building, as well as each cohort of students, is different, so in the current plans we have enabled head teachers and school leaders to have the discretion to include a child that they view as vulnerable who might not be in the categories that the Government have outlined, and indeed it is they who will be doing the risk assessments of their buildings. We trust those professionals to do this job, relying on the guidance that we have given them. Away from the headlines, many teachers, head teachers and support staff are planning in anticipation of being able to reopen on 1 June should the five tests be satisfied.

Will my noble friend confirm that the Government will issue some guidance next week on how and when boarding school pupils may safely return to school, on permitting boarding schools to quarantine themselves—that is, running quarantine facilities for pupils who are returning from overseas—and to cover the measures that are being taken to avoid visa delays for overseas pupils?

My Lords, I have been in touch over this period directly with the head of the Boarding Schools’ Association to talk about their specific issues. We will shortly be issuing guidance to them, particularly in relation to year 6 international boarders. At such a time as international travel resumes, we will of course expect them to abide by the guidance that is in place in relation to self-isolation or quarantine, depending on what is in force at that time. Obviously we will be advising them on what constitutes a household or isolation of a household for those purposes. The guidance will be out shortly.

The Science and Technology Committee of your Lordships’ House heard yesterday in its evidence session from the science community that there is not yet sufficient scientific evidence about the transmission rate of Covid-19 by children, many of whom are asymptomatic, to adults, including teachers. The reliance that the Government are putting on the test, trace and isolate system means that it must be reliable, but it rather begs the question whether they are satisfied with the scientific advice that they are getting on the infectivity of children. And why is the R number not published regionally if the test, trace and isolate system is showing that action will have to happen regionally?

My Lords, this is a new virus and the scientific understanding of it is developing. The current understanding is that there is a high degree of confidence that the severity of the disease in children is lower and there is moderate to high confidence that the susceptibility to clinical disease of children up to the age of 11 to 13 is lower than for adults. Hence, this is forming the basis, along with Public Health England guidance on the hierarchy of controls in schools, of the plans to reopen schools in the week of 1 June, assuming that the five tests are satisfied at that time.

Every school can have an elected trade union health and safety workplace representative with statutory powers to carry out risk assessments. How many have done so?

My Lords, I am not aware of how many health and safety officers have performed such risk assessments, but I will seek to obtain the information for the noble Lord. It is the responsibility of school leaders to carry out those kinds of risk assessments in the course of planning to reopen on 1 June.

My Lords, I am pleased that my noble friend has emphasised the number of schools and multi-academy organisations that say they want to go back. I welcome the efforts of the teaching professions over the past few weeks where schools have remained open. However, is there a final date by which a decision has to be taken, which should apply to all local authorities, as to whether schools reopen on 1 June or some other date?

My Lords, this two to three-week period is vital for schools to plan for reopening, but the tracking of the disease in the population will not be static during this period. My noble friend is correct that there is a notice period in the road map by which the Government will tell schools the position of the scientific data at that point.

My Lords, of course I wish for schools to open, but I was in a meeting yesterday where I met the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy on Covid-19. He emphasised that the seriousness of this virus cannot be underestimated, nor can its uncertainty. He said that we should have “a comprehensive defence everywhere”. Can the Government guarantee that every school that opens will have a full operational defence plan that protects staff and children?

My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Baroness’s acknowledgement that the population is having to deal with a time of great uncertainty around the disease. The department has published detailed guidance, including a planning framework for schools to be able to reopen. If they enact the hierarchy of controls when they reopen we can substantially reduce transmission of the disease in those settings.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. The Virtual Proceedings will now adjourn until a convenient point after 12.30 pm for the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Callanan.

Virtual Proceeding suspended.