The Scottish government’s scientific advisory sub-group on education has agreed to publish an updated evidence report on transmission of the new coronavirus variant among children and in school by the end of January.
The timing of the report makes it increasingly unlikely that, when it makes a decision tomorrow, the Scottish government will decide to stick to its original timeline for reopening schools, which would mean returning on Monday 1 February – something that has already been described by the education secretary John Swinney as "a tall order".
First minister Nicola Sturgeon has said there can be no return to school until there are answers on the question of transmission among young people and that it is “important that we give the scientific community time to come to a more certain view on that”. Today, she said she did not want to raise parents' hopes about a 1 February return.
The minutes of the government sub-group's 6 January meeting – published on the Scottish government website on Friday – make it clear that evidence will not be available until the end of the month.
Background: Target date for full school return is delayed
Coronavirus: ‘Tall order’ for 1 February return of pupils
Nicola Sturgeon: Phased return of schools possible
Vaccination: Prioritise teachers, union says
The advisors also say that increased coronavirus testing, particularly in secondary, is needed to “help staff, parents and young people to feel more confident about returning to school”. They call for work on the “logistics of testing in school” to continue “apace” while schools are closed.
Coronavirus: When will schools reopen to all pupils?
They add that while vaccination “does not fall within the remit of the sub-group, it needs to form part of the consideration of the wider issues around school reopening”.
The sub-group group – which includes among its members prominent public health experts such as Professor Devi Sridhar – also says a “blanket approach” to reopening should not be taken, adding that “it may be possible to reopen primary schools and ELC [early learning and childcare] first, if the data suggests that these remain relatively safe in terms of transmission of the new variant”.
The minutes, however, also say that currently “there is not enough evidence on transmissibility of the new variant with which to come to firm conclusions about its implications for schools”.
The minutes state that “it is clear that the new variant of the disease is significantly more transmissible than other strains” but add that at the moment “there is no scientific consensus as to whether the new variant has a greater impact on children and young people than previous variants”.
The group commits to producing and publishing “an updated evidence report on children, schools, ELC and transmission by the end of January”.
The minutes continue: “Increased testing, particularly in secondary schools, would enable outbreaks to be identified and managed quickly. This will help staff, parents and young people to feel more confident about returning to school. It is important, therefore, that the work which was already underway to look at the logistics of testing in schools can continue apace while the schools are closed."
The minutes add: “Although vaccination does not fall within the remit of the sub-group, it needs to form part of the consideration of the wider issues around school reopening.”
At the Scottish government's daily coronavirus briefing this afternoon, first mininster Nicola Sturgeon said: “We are seeing some positive signs from the numbers that lockdown is starting to stabilise things and hopefully starting to tip them into decline but transmission is still higher than we would want it to be.
“I’m not going to raise expectations about schools being back on February 1 but nor am I going to stand here and make assumptions about a decision we’re not going to take until tomorrow.”
She added that, “as soon as” a decision is made, she will announce it to Parliament in the afternoon.
The first minister underlined her commitment to ensuring that pupils are able to return to school as soon as the virus is under control.
She said: “We want to get schools back as quickly as we possibly can, it is not in the interests of kids to be out of school for any longer than is absolutely necessary but community transmission has always been a key factor in these types of decisions.”