Most Covid restrictions in colleges will be eased in England for the next term, the education secretary has confirmed.
Gavin Williamson told Parliament this afternoon that, after balancing the risks, he had decided that most restrictions should be lifted as the country entered stage 4 of the Covid recovery roadmap.
He said contact tracing would be transferred to the NHS Test and Trace system, although where there are outbreaks of the coronavirus, colleges might be contacted by Test and Trace.
New rules would mean that from 16 August those under the age of 18 will no longer have to isolate if they are a close contact of someone who has tested positive, but might be contacted by Test and Trace, Mr Williamson told Parliament.
Earlier today, the health secretary said adults who were double vaccinated would no longer face isolation for being a contact, but would be asked to do a PCR test and only face isolation if they tested positive. Mr Williamson said 18-year-olds would be treated the same way as children for four months after their birthday to allow them to get vaccinated.
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"From step 4, a more proportionate set of controls will apply in early years, schools, colleges and higher education institutions. These will maintain a baseline of protective measures in education settings while maximising attendance and minimising disruption to children and young people's education," said Mr Williamson. Staggered start and finish times would no longer be necessary, he said – although colleges could keep those in place until the end of term if they wished.
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Enhanced hygiene and ventilation will remain in place in colleges, the education secretary said, but face coverings will no longer be advised for students, staff or visitors in classrooms or communal areas, and social distancing will "no longer be necessary".
Colleges will be asked to provide two on-site tests for all students at the beginning of the new term, and home testing should continue, he added, while staff and adult students should make sure they take advantage of their vaccination offer as soon as possible.
For the remainder of this term, testing should remain in place. "It is vital that secondary school and college students continue to test for the last few weeks of this term and throughout September," said Mr Williamson. He said testing would be reviewed in September.
"I would like to thank staff and students who have shown patience and flexibility in recent months," he added. "With the ending of these restrictions, children and young people will be able to go back to their educational lives.
"Step 4 does not mean the end of the pandemic and some restrictions will be kept in place while we move toward with more of the population being fully vaccinated. While the pandemic is not over, we are moving into a new phase of managing Covid from strict rules towards ever-greater personal responsibility.
"Millions of children and young people have been back in the classroom since 8 March, learning with their friends and teachers. This is hugely valuable for their wellbeing as well as for their education. I also do not think it is acceptable that children should face greater restrictions over and above those of wider society, especially as they have given up so much to keep older generations safe."
Labour's shadow education secretary, Kate Green, said it had been "government negligence" that had kept learners from the classroom, and today's statement offered no clarity.
University and College Union (UCU) general secretary Jo Grady said: "The government said it would be led by data not dates, but it is scrapping health and safety measures in education while cases are climbing rapidly. The shocking outbreaks we have seen in colleges and universities over the past academic year show that educational settings act as Covid incubators and help the virus spread rapidly. Worryingly, it appears the government has learned nothing, and is set to repeat the same mistakes, abandoning important safety measures too early and showing a continued reckless disregard for health and safety.
"Last year, ministers in Westminster failed to listen to staff and students when they pushed ahead with an unsafe reopening of college and university campuses for in-person teaching. This cannot be allowed to happen again, and vaccines need to be made available to all students as quickly as possible.
"Yet again the government is shifting responsibility for managing a national health crisis onto employers, an approach that proved catastrophic last time. We need robust Covid health and safety measures and have a majority of the student population vaccinated."