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NEWS: PACEY attends SAGE briefing on coronavirus

PACEY was amongst a number of early years and education representative bodies that attended the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) briefing on education held virtually yesterday. It was a chance to hear about the latest evidence on, amongst other matters, transmission rates in young people, the role ventilation plays in managing the virus and whether any changes to current guidance for early years settings was needed because of the new variant of the virus.

As last time, the SAGE advisors at the briefing were:

  • Dr Jenny Harries OBE, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England
  • Professor Russell Viner, President of the Royal College of Paediatric and Child Health and Professor of Adolescent Health at the UCL Institute of Child Health
  • Professor Viv Bennett CBE, Director, Nursing at Public Health England ( PHE ) and Director, Nursing at the Department of Health

They were clear that early evidence from SAGE showed early years provision had a smaller relative impact on transmission rates than primary schools, which in turn had a smaller relative impact than secondary schools. Again they stressed that it was important to balance the risk to children’s health with the risk to their wellbeing and education of not being in school. Whilst the risk to young children’s health was low, the advisors recognised the concerns around risk to adults teaching and caring for children and growing concern about the new variant. 

They took time to explain that the new variant was more easily transmitted but there was no evidence that its impact on people’s health was different to or more severe than the first variant of Covid-19. This is why they were clear that current guidance on controls including use of PPE remained relevant. As always they stressed that this is regularly under review.

They also explained that the early evidence they have is that schools and early years/childcare settings are low-risk – particularly because they have done such a good job of implementing the systems of control that reduce risk. They repeated previous advice to ensure rooms are well ventilated and that this was more important in winter when we spend more time indoors.

Finally, they stressed that schools were closed to reduce the risk of transmission in the community and not because they were thought unsafe. In particular they talked about children aged 0-10 being at lower risk and that transmission grew with children aged 10-12 and over. They felt this was because older children mixed more in their community, such as on the way to school, on public transport, after school etc. They believed most pre-school children don’t mix in this way so their interaction with the wider community is more limited. Early years setting were kept open this time because of this and in recognition of how critical it was for children’s future life chances to prioritise early education.

We and other representatives have asked SAGE to produce a plain English briefing for staff and parents using schools, colleges and early years settings in recognition of the increased levels of concern about the new variant. Many of the teaching bodies at the briefing were also concerned about how many more children were seeking to attend school as critical worker/vulnerable children during this lockdown, in particular since the Secretary of State widened the 'vulnerable' definition this week. Some schools are reporting 50% or more attendance levels (compared to 10% or less during the first lockdown) in some areas with high numbers of key workers or children with no or limited access to technology. They asked whether a limit on total numbers should be set for headteachers, amid concerns that this development may slow efforts to reduce transmission levels. They highlighted that this could also help to manage staff and parental concerns. SAGE advisors were clear that no limits had been set for schools for this lockdown or the last.

As always this is an on-going and fluid situation and the SAGE advisors were clear that their advice is regularly reviewed in light of the impact the measures are having on transmission, hospitalisation and other data and new scientific evidence that is published.

The early evidence SAGE has on early years settings remains limited and the general ONS study that regularly monitors infection levels only includes children aged two and above. PACEY will continue to call for more research and data on early years to be published and will share any lay briefing that the SAGE panel does produce for people working in education and early years.