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Universities: Coronavirus

Question for Department for Education

UIN 183267, tabled on 19 April 2021

To ask the Secretary of State for Education, what the clinical evidential basis is for his Department’s decision to delay the return of university students to face-to-face teaching.

Answered on

26 April 2021

We are committed to taking a cautious approach to easing restrictions, guided by data instead of dates. Much of the data that has been used to inform decision making has already been published.

It is important that we continue to take a cautious – but irreversible – approach to re-opening. Moving too fast, too soon, risks a resurgence in infections, hospitalisations and deaths. Whilst we are aware that there is limited evidence of transmission in in-person teaching environments, we must not lose sight of the risks the virus poses and must stay vigilant throughout to ensure this roadmap provides a one-way passage to returning to a more normal life.

We have worked extremely closely with scientists and the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) to understand and model various scenarios to inform our plan that seeks to enable us to re-open the country without putting unsustainable pressure on the NHS. We have also examined economic and social data to get a balanced understanding of the impacts of carefully easing restrictions. The government has also carefully considered data on the impact of COVID-19 and lockdown on ethnic minority communities, the vulnerable, the young, and low-income groups.

The government has taken into account all the scientific advice and models that suggest that allowing additional indoor mixing at an earlier stage when prevalence is higher and fewer people have been vaccinated would result in significantly higher numbers of infections and that is why restrictions outdoors have been eased first and restrictions on most indoor activity will remain in place. As the number of people vaccinated increases, we anticipate being able to take steps to ease further as more people are protected.

A wealth of data, papers and evidence is being published at the same time as the Roadmap, to ensure transparency on the information the government has had available to it in reaching its decisions. This includes information from Public Health England:

  • Information on vaccine effectiveness of the Pfizer vaccination
  • A surveillance report with a more detailed summary of the findings so far from the SARS-CoV-2 Immunity & REinfection EvaluatioN (SIREN) study and Severe Acute Respiratory Infections Watch
  • A technical paper on the SIREN analysis being published (as a pre-print) by the Lancet

The papers from SAGE include:

  • Minutes from the last 4 SAGE meetings
  • Children’s Task and Finish Group paper: ‘COVID-19 in higher education settings, 10 February 2021’
  • 3 papers from the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M), with a summary of modelling on scenarios for easing restrictions, together with the supporting papers from modellers at Warwick and Imperial universities
  • A collection of papers from SPI-M on “relaxation of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) and the re-opening of schools”, Independent Pandemic Scientific Insights Group on Behaviours (the behavioural experts’ sub-group of SAGE) on return to campus for the spring term and the risk of increased transmission from student migration