Over the past few weeks, I have spoken with many of our local School Leaders and Early Years providers. Understandably, staff are very anxious about their safety in the workplace. I want to reassure everyone that the data continues to show that schools and nurseries are very safe places.
On Tuesday, the Education Select Committee questioned the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Jennie Harries, and pushed for as much of this data to be published as possible, so that those who work so hard to deliver for our children can feel safe at work. However, she did assure the Committee that they are monitoring data from across England and there is “no evident increased risk to the teaching profession or education staff in schools”. They are also comparing the education sector to other workplace settings, such as supermarkets.
I have included one of my contributions below, but you can also watch the full evidence session here.
David Simmonds: I think the questions about advice that we had scheduled have been asked to some extent. I want to ask the panel about the evidence. There has been a lot of debate in the public domain about evidence-based decisions, following the science, what the evidence shows. While it feels to me that you are broadly giving the right advice and the right decisions are being taken, there seems to be a lack of transparency around the data and the evidence that is being used to inform this advice. I want to ask you about the primary source evidence. We have come across examples of a number of quite small studies. How good is the primary evidence data or other information about what is happening in schools and what is driving it, or are we in a situation where in reality that evidence is quite sketchy and, therefore, the evidence has to be based on professional experience rather than clear and definitive science?
The second part of the question is I get asked a lot, as I am sure we all do, by teachers what the numbers are for transmission in schools and what the numbers are for transmissibility between staff versus between students and staff across the different age groups. The evidence in the public domain about that seems to be extremely sketchy. Is there good evidence that answers those questions that could be published or do we need to be very clear with people that the evidence and advice you are giving is on the basis of professional experience but not on the basis of definitive data?
Dr Harries: I think the answer is it is a mixed picture. The advice that is being given is based on the best available evidence and the evidence is accruing. It will change with the new variant, as I have highlighted, because we will have to keep reassessing. At the start of the pandemic we did not have good strong evidence at all but now we have growth in the routine surveys, for example the ONS survey, community surveyance, some specific educational surveys, the schools survey that PHE does. They all accumulate data and they are all considered in updated SAGE advice.
The bit that is more difficult is the point that Russell and I mentioned earlier, which is that every child goes to school and they are also part of their community. Trying to get absolute clarity of an individual case in a school causing an outbreak, potentially, as opposed to a child arriving in school, at the same time that they have recently, for example, had a weekend outing, with a school friend and they both have cases that were community acquired is much more difficult. To do that definitively you would have to do genomic studies and trace the particular virus through its roots through the outbreak. Each local health protection team will follow potential school outbreaks and will have a good idea and those are monitored routinely by Public Health England and are reported in and included in the information, but in many of them it will not be possible to say definitively where transmission occurred, and that would be the same in workplaces of all sorts.
Information is good; all the scientific evidence is accrued; it gets stronger as the pandemic goes on because we have increased numbers of tests. We are finding now that there is more information because of the use of testing in schools, focused in schools, allows for more information on asymptomatic transmission, which is one of the things that was unknown at the start of the pandemic. I think that is an important and growing area of knowledge.
David Simmonds: When the likes of the NEU are telling head teachers that schools need to close because teachers are at a particularly marked risk of Covid, can we be confident that they are wrong in rebutting that? Especially in respect of these studies, is there in prospect some wider publication of that data to address the understandable anxieties that some people feel?
Dr Harries: On the first point about potential risk to teachers, we look at a number of sources. If we are doing lateral flow testing in schools, any particular individual outbreak or information will be assessed by PHE in the way it would be for any outbreak. But I think the really important one for unions is the ONS data and there is a very clear review—and that is done fairly routinely—that at the moment there is no evident increased risk to the teaching profession or educational staff in schools. I think that is a really important one and it fits with the information that Russell has described earlier about transmission in and around schools.