4. Evidence for "Back to school" June 2020 DfE Guidance
What was "the science" and how did the UK fail to follow it?
Review of UK’s evidence base on Covid in schools, Part 4
The government's June 2020 back to school efforts were a shambolic disaster. The Cabinet Office had set out a roadmap for relaxing measures and commissioned SAGE to model a number of scenarios.
Once planning was underway the Cabinet Office chose on 19 May to alter the roadmap, allowing more businesses to open earlier whilst also seeking to get all students back into classrooms by July. The lack of detail in the planning and the sparsity of publicly available evidence saw the plans come under sustained criticism from education workers and parents, however it was the rebellion of many Conservative held Local Authorities; including some in ministers’ constituencies, that caused the government to push back timelines and abandon returning all students to school before the summer holidays.
Ignoring international comparisons the government chose to dismiss rotas as an option which would have allowed all students to have some time in school.
Part 4 examines the minutes of committee meetings regarding the planning for students returning in June 2020. These focused mainly on the impact of transmission in schools and the wider community based on student numbers in school, besides testing and social distancing there was little discussion on other measures to reduce transmission like PPE, ventilation and filtration.
Why Denmark was a poor comparison
How the DfE’s Chief Scientific Officer’s answers to Education Select Committee raised more questions.
Children’s Task and Finish group: Comments on sequencing of social distancing measures (schools), 20 May 2020.
How the Cabinet Office modelled one set of scenarios then changed their plans at short notice to speed up the relaxing of measures
During May 2020 Denmark was repeatedly mentioned as an example of a country that had got its students back to school, “If Denmark can do it why can’t we?” was repeated by media commentators and MPs, however the UK was planning on returning to classrooms of 30 students, with no measures beyond increased hand washing and keeping classes in primary or year groups in secondary separate. This was not what Denmark had done.
(A direct copy of a table drawn up in haste at the time, typos included)
Its worth noting that Denmark’s approach to covid in children changed over time to become one of the less cautious countries.
DfE’s Chief Scientific Officer at the Education Select Committee
In early May 2020 the announcement was made that students would be returning in greater numbers after the May half term. The UK government had turned down the trade union’s offer to collaboratively plan the return of students, telling the general secretaries that there were no plans in place right up to the moment they announced their plans to the public in a press conference after briefing the papers in the days before. The plans would see selected year groups return at the start of June with other year groups being added in the weeks afterwards until all students were back in school by the start of July.
The Department for Education’s chief scientific officer Osama Rahman was called by the Education Select Committee to answer questions on the evidence base for the reopening strategy, members of the committee covered a mix of opinion, from concerns the plans were too cautious to outright reckless.
The questioning of Rahman; whose career in the civil service before taking up post in the DfE was as an economist, left the committee with more questions than answers.
From SchoolsWeek’s editor John Dickens, 13 May
Appearing in front of the Parliamentary science and technology committee today, Osama Rahman also admitted the DfE had done no modelling on the impact on transmission rates of starting to reopen schools after the May half term break.
During a hearing that left some MPs visibly bemused, Rahman also suggested the government guidance issued yesterday on safety is a “draft”, and will be reissued after further consultation with Public Health England.
He also said the decision to reopen schools was made by cabinet, not the DfE.
Asked about the transmission rate among children during the hearing, Rahman said the evidence is mixed, and there’s a “low degree of confidence in evidence they might transmit it less”.
Monaghan responded: “We’re putting together hundreds of potential vectors that can then go and transmit. Is that correct?”
Rahman said: “Possibly, depending on school sizes.”
Education committee chair Robert Halfon asked what scientific evidence base underpinned the decision to reopen schools to pupils in reception, year 1 and year 6, and what modelling had been done.
“The department has not done any modelling,” Rahman replied. “One of the SAGE groups has done various bits of modelling for different scenarios on what years you can bring back. My understanding is those will be published in due course.”
Halfon responded that “surely you must have scientific evidence the base underpinning the department’s decision?”, to which Rahman responded: “That was a cabinet decision following advice from SAGE.”
When asked how he was sure the cabinet had taken the evidence into account, Rahman said that advice goes to the secretary of state who then expresses his view to cabinet.
“The secretary of state is informed of what the science says, as are policy officials in the department.”
Rahman also admitted he had made no assessment on how effectively actions proposed by the government for schools to reopen safely can be implemented.
Teachers have raised concerns about government guidance stating in most situations they aren’t required to wear personal protective equipment.
When asked what evidence the department has considered in relation to this, Rahman said: “I don’t know, I don’t think I was necessary at the PPE meeting. You’ll have to ask SAGE that.”
Greg Clark, chair of the committee, replied: “But you’re the chief scientific adviser to the DfE.”
Rahman responded: “I am. I’m not sure when they discussed PPE, it was a general PPE discussion.”
He had earlier said that he gets the SAGE minutes and papers for meetings he attends, which are used to brief the department’s operational centre and minister’s offices.
Williamson earlier told the Commons he was “more than happy” to share “all the advice that we have received” from SAGE, the government’s scientific advisory group.
He also revealed he’d asked scientific advisers “to give briefings for the sector” to “help them understand” the decision.
“When you have medical and scientific advice that is saying that it is the right time to start bringing schools back in a phased and controlled manner, it seems only the right thing to do so, and the only responsible thing to do,” he told MPs.
The government claimed they were following the science, but at this time SAGE documents were not being released to the public. The unions and concerned parents who were calling to see the science were attacked by a large section of the media who were quoting choice papers covered in previous parts of this review, the lines “children don’t play a significant role in transmission” and “no evidence of a child infecting an adult” were repeated on a daily basis.
Despite the government claiming herd immunity had never been the strategy, lying about protecting care homes, and Matt Hancock’s data on ramping up testing double counting tests, campaigners were questioned repeatedly for demanding to see the evidence rather than simply trusting the government's claims it was following the science.
Rahman’s appearance at the select committee demonstrated the government’s negligent approach
Later that day Rahman released a clarification regarding his comments.
The Education Secretary Gavin Williamson did organise a meeting between senior scientific advisers and the education unions’ general secretaries, Williamson chose not to attend after previously saying he would. The questions posed to the advisers focused mainly on the evidence base regarding transmission in children with the advisers answers providing little in the way of new information:
Lack of evidence
Some studies show higher transmission
Some studies show lower transmission
Children appear to be low risk
PPE not necessary
Importance of children being in school repeated
The importance of having an effective test, trace and isolate system (TTI) in place
The importance of TTI was highlighted repeatedly by a number of committees, having school openings linked to availability of testing is likely the reason 1 June was for the official start date of the expensive yet flawed test and trace system.
With eight days to go before the first full year groups returned SAGE’s modelling on schools was finally released. Nine different options had been modelled, the Government’s plan wasn’t one of them, they weren’t “following the science”. SAGE thought the most important factor for controlling transmission was social distancing, stressing the importance of using a rota system, which the DfE had just ruled out.
Alongside the modelling were a few familiar studies suggesting lower infection rates in children, however these data sets overlapped with lockdowns making deductions regarding increased student numbers difficult. Studies cited on the infectiousness of children were inconclusive. Considering discussions of cross border collaboration regarding covid in children from some of the government’s senior advisors there were relatively few international studies referenced.
SAGE suggested that even if children are less infectious, the number of contacts in education settings would mean increasing student numbers would increase the R rate. The behavioural scientists thought younger primary year groups would have more contacts due to their inability to social distance while 15-+7 year olds are less likely to social distance outside of schools and more likely to use public transport. SAGE couldn’t be sure that any increase in student numbers wouldn’t push R back over 1. The final conclusion in the released paper was on the importance of an effective test, trace and isolate system.
SAGE had modelled nine different scenarios for reopening schools, the government plans were a different scenario that hadn’t been modelled. After initially suggesting two year groups would return on 1 June in primary schools, the government decided on reception, years one and six.
The Children’s Task and Finish Group
The CTF is a subgroup of SAGE, link below leads to the membership list, some participants have asked to remain anonymous.
CTF 20 May Meeting
The Cabinet Office only commissioned modelling for their specific plans on 19 May when schools had already been told to begin planning. This suggests the decision to further increase the number of students returning on 1 June was a political decision as the Cabinet Office had provided a different briefing at the start of May as discussed in the CTF minutes from 4 May; a response to pressure from media and internal party politics?
Effective TTI was considered essential for an increase in student numbers however doubts were raised regarding the ability to effectively swab younger children. A different threshold was considered for accessing testing for children as fevers are more common in younger age groups.
Opening schools was predicted to likely increase transmission in staff and parents, and schools should be considered within the wider relaxing of measures meaning schools can have a larger effect on transmission through parents also going back to work.
“This modelling of 4 May 2020 conducted by SPI-M can only provide broad insights. However, as the non-school measures implemented on 13 May 2020 and those proposed for Step 2 (opening of non-essential retail; bubbling) are much more extensive than those considered in the modelling, the impact of the same school measures modelled are likely to be higher than previously estimated.”
“We note the proposal on bubbling. We stress caution at introducing too many changes at once, given the uncertainty in the impact of any particular measure. Opening of schools will compromise any restrictions on bubbling – in effect, households of children in the same class will be part of the same bubble. This is likely to create more extensive chains of transmission.”
The CTF’s minutes show the government had decided to relax measures at a faster rate than the roadmap they had initially asked the advisory groups to model. This demonstrates that the government ignored SAGE’s advice from other meetings that prioritising schools required other measures being relaxed at a slower rate in order to keep community levels low. This suggests the economy was being prioritised rather than protecting children’s education, otherwise parents would have continued staying at home for longer while their children went to school.
The original planning was for schools to have a maximum of 50% of students in school at any one time, with the right use of remote learning for students not in school this would have made social distancing easier to enforce and allow for smaller class sizes. International comparisons show that rotas were widely used in other countries at this point in the pandemic while a number of comparable countries chose not to have students return until the start of the new school year.
The UK government decided that it didn’t approve of rotas, a suggested reason for this is that it would not have been as convenient for parents of younger children to return to work. In the end 50% of primary school children were invited back into school before the summer holidays, if rotas had been implemented every student would have spent some time in school with remote learning used to reinforce what was taught while they were in the classroom. This clearly would have been a better arrangement for delivering effective education.
Education vs parents returning to work is explained in point 12 of the CTF minutes, however this also highlights the need for messaging to reassure parents that schools were safer than other social contacts.
“12. Interventions must be eased in a logical manner. Failure to do so will influence the number of parents who are willing to send their children to school. It is important to explain why resuming school attendance is safer to resume or must be resumed for other important reasons (such as to reduce harm to vulnerable children), compared with other activities, such as going to work. For example, it may be confusing if individuals were encouraged to return to school, but the number of times that they are allowed to leave the house each day remains the same.”
And in point 18
“In addition, as the number of children attending increases, the capacity of schools and teaching staff to social distance, limit class sizes or rota children and staff will be limited – hence further increasing transmission risk.”
Rotas are addressed by the CTF in point 24.
“24. The effectiveness of some interventions, such as the use of rotas (for example children and staff attending on 2-week cycle, with no more than 50% attendance at one time) will also be compromised if there is variation across schools, particularly if children from one household attend schools on different systems.”
Several points discuss the harms of children not being in school.
It is worth noting that apart from the first week of lockdown before the Easter holidays began, schools were always open to vulnerable children and those with an EHCP. Many of the concerns highlighted could have been mitigated to a reasonable extent if rotas had been put in place.
Those same children from certain communities or disadvantaged groups who the CTF are concerned about suffering during lockdown are from the same communities that had been identified as being more impacted by covid. This was already documented at the time as Russell Viner stated this in his emails to Jeremy Farrar and Antony Fauci (see part 3 of the review), and yet this impact of infection isn’t discussed in the CTF minutes.
While the government sought to reassure the public, they had been advised their decisions were leading to increased transmission.
The UK Government claimed it was following the science but it changed plans before asking it’s scientific advisers to provide modelling and predictions for the changes. The government was informed by its own committees that returning all students whilst also reopening many businesses was likely to increase transmission, but tried to go ahead with this anyway. PPE and some other NPIs were not considered, and rotas were dismissed.