England moves to plan B, and DfE has guidance out already

What are the implications for universities and students in England of the government’s new restrictions to slow the spread of Covid? Jim Dickinson digests the guidance.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

The immediate question for us that surrounds England’s move to “Plan B” to both slow the spread of Covid and improve vaccination take up is the way in which (and extent to which) it impacts the operation of universities.

Revised guidance for the sector has been published uncharacteristically swiftly this morning by the Department for Education (DfE) and the main message seems to be – keep calm and carry on. The two main (and in reality quite minor) changes for universities are guidance on working from home, and Covid certification. Guidance on masks in higher education settings pretty much remains as it was.

One thing to say before we get into this – the rest of the UK’s higher education system has been coping with versions of most of what’s in this package for weeks now, and if therefore the implementation of any of this feels like it’s been sprung without chance to reflect or plan, the lesson probably need to be to improve links with those universities rather than moaning into the Westminster void.

A decent spread

At the 6pm press conference on Wednesday night, Boris Johnson announced that from Monday, people will be asked to work from home if they can. But in an answer to a clever question from a lobby hack, he also confirmed that staff Christmas parties can go ahead – leading the Times to splash with “Don’t go to work, do go to parties”. Do you see what they did there?

This isn’t as ridiculous as it sounds. Asd we’ve pointed out numerous times during the pandemic, it’s not that a basket of restrictions has to be consistent from the point of view of the public – it’s that each non-pharmaceutical intervention has some impact on reducing the spread of an epidemic disease, and the government isn’t trying to impose all of them at once, because they all also have health, social and economic costs.

Nevertheless it raises (again) the question of which roles necessarily need to be on-campus at this end of term. At the less controversial end of things, there’s plenty of roles that will have already moved to hybrid working patterns, and the reality is that those that were working 3 days at home and 2 days in will now need to move (back) towards 5 days from Monday.

Remain on-campus

Teaching and other “in person” delivery activities are more complicated. The mood music in the guidance is very much that DfE expects in-person teaching and learning to continue and that any staff needed to support that do not need to work from home:

From 13 December staff who can work from home, should do so. The Government recognises the importance of not disrupting the education of children and young people and is prioritising keeping education settings open under Plan B. We therefore expect education settings to remain open for face-to-face teaching as planned. Teaching and learning should not be moved online as a result of the work from home guidance and staff can continue to attend work as necessary to deliver this.

Of course the reality is that plenty of teaching is already being delivered remotely – so the easiest way to deliver against the guidance would be to simply carry on delivering any scheduled on-campus teaching as planned until at least the end of term. That’s not to say there won’t be pressures to do more than the statutory NPIs – some will call for March 2020 style campus shutdowns, some will demand September 2020 social distancing capacities, and others will demand February 2021 subject selection. But those pressures need to be balanced against the other impacts of disruption and hits to mental health.

HE Settings are best placed to determine the workforce they require to continue face-to-face teaching but we expect the majority of staff would attend settings, to maintain face-to-face education for all students as far as possible. We would expect those who would continue to attend in person could include the following, however this list is not exhaustive and it would be at the discretion of the employer to identify any other staff they deem critical to the continuation of face-to-face teaching:

People involved in face-to-face teaching for example: lecturers or academic staff; Researchers; Those that support teaching and learning for example: lab technicians or specialist technical staff (without these staff teaching and research can’t take place); Essential student support services – medical, mental health, wellbeing as well as direct teaching and learning such as library staff

One thing that assists with that discussion is mask mandates. Last week’s guidance shift encouraging mask mandates in public areas across education was enough cover for most universities to impose them in classrooms too – remember the reason that lecture theatres weren’t covered is that “universities are big schools” DfE officials tend to think of “classrooms” which don’t involve much mixing with relative strangers in a school, but do in universities.

In any case, the news here that face coverings will become compulsory in most public indoor venues – such as cinemas, theatres and places of worship – ought to be enough for most universities to go blanket, albeit with sensible exemptions for eating or exercising.

Covid passports

The centrepiece of the government’s announcement was the expected introduction of requiring the NHS Covid Pass in specific settings, using a negative test or full vaccination. This appears to apply in exactly the way we were warned it would in Plan B – including unseated indoor venues with more than 500 people, unseated outdoor venues with more than 4,000 people and any venue with more than 10,000 people. No, that doesn’t apply to lecture theatres (unless you’re showing films to the public at night) – but it does to your SU’s on-campus nightclub or gig venue:

HE providers are not required to use the NHS COVID Pass, unless they are holding a specific event (such as a reception, concert or party) that meets the attendance thresholds or unless they are responsible for a venue (such as a nightclub) that is covered by the regulations.”

Providers should not use the NHS COVID Pass as a condition of entry for education or related activities such as exams or teaching or extra-curricular activities or any other day-to-day activities that are part of education or training”

Merry Christmas

No preposterous “travel window” this year – just that students should take a test before they travel home for the christmas break, using home test kits provided by their university, or at an on-site facility, where available.

There’s some moderately good news buried in here for international students. As you might remember, all term we’ve been locking up double-jabbed international students on the basis that the officials remembered to amend the definition of double jabbed for entry into the UK, but forgot to amend the legislation around self-isolation, which was only accepting UK delivered jabs. This meant that international students have had to isolate if they were identified as having been in close contact with a positive Covid case even if they were fully vaccinated.

The good news here is that anyone whose vaccine was recognised at the border will now be in the same position as anyone vaccinated in the UK in relation to self-isolation.

In addition, self isolating for Omicron contacts has now been replaced by daily LFD testing for those who are fully vaccinated. DfE is hopeful that that will reduce the number of students having to self-isolate.

If the PCR test is taken within 2 days of the positive lateral flow test, and is negative, it overrides the self-test LFD test and the student can return to their HE setting, as long as the individual doesn’t have COVID-19 symptoms

The Government plans to introduce Daily Contact Testing as soon as possible as an alternative to self-isolation for contacts who are fully vaccinated or under the age of 18 years and 6 months

If there’s international students keen to go clubbing or see a Steps concert, things are inevitably a bit trickier. Those vaccinated overseas in any of the approved list of vaccines and countries will be able to certify their vaccination status by showing their COVID status and photo ID (for example a passport) matching the country in which they were vaccinated, although your average club bouncer may not have the guidance manual to hand, so SUs are going to wanting to do a ring round to ensure the usual student haunts understand the situation fully.

However those vaccinated overseas but whose vaccines and certificates are not recorded in the approved list of vaccines and countries will not be considered as fully-vaccinated and therefore will not be able to certify their vaccination. DfE knows this is an issue – and must have known this since vaccine passports started to be considered months and months ago – but all it has today is that it is continuing to work closely with DHSC and other departments to resolve this issue.

The ability to show proof of a negative (lateral flow) test to get a (temporary) valid COVID pass is the stated workaround, and students are encouraged to register with a local GP so they have an NHS number to make this as simple as possible.

Boosterism

The truth about much of the above is that higher education isn’t much of a concern for the government right now. That’s probably fair enough in context – students appear to be getting vaxxed at high rates, case numbers have been below the rest of the public all term (despite the virus spreading mainly amongst the young) and term is almost (or already in some cases) over.

As such, there’s probably little point now in confirming or planning any next term interpretation or implementation of all of this ahead of better knowledge about boosters holding up against Omicron.

One thing to stress about the coverage and the plan here is that while there remains the same debate that’s raged between liberty and safety that’s been raging since March 2020, the government’s strategy here is largely in line with international comparators. Covid is not yet endemic because there’s not (yet) enough resistance in the population, the transition there will be uncomfortable and bumpy, and not enough is known about Omicron to be certain whether the vaccine is enough to help us bat it off – although emerging evidence is positive.

This is all cautionary stuff, and as such it remains the case that the very best thing that universities can be doing is encouraging vaccine (especially booster) take up. The risk-based move-down-the-age-range thing makes a pre-Christmas booster bus on campus a non-starter, but in January it would be ridiculous if it wasn’t easier to get a booster in the arm than it is to get on Eduroam given the amount of teaching being delivered online these days. “Get boosted while you try to download your slides”, etc.

The other thing that remains important to spend some meeting time on is the plight of students over Christmas. Some will end up having Covid symptoms on the day they’re due to travel home. Some international students will be looking at red list rules (or the threat of them) and thinking that travel back isn’t worth the risk. Some aren’t going to be back when we might like. Most of those concerns we had about students and support last Christmas haven’t gone away, really.

2 responses to “England moves to plan B, and DfE has guidance out already

  1. I suspect many in the sector are still struggling with the reopening works still not being completed after several months, one University I know only too well decided only to check air-flow, essentially the basic level of ventilation testing, only in ‘teaching’ spaces, and even then many of those were not tested.

    Several mechanically ventilated lecture theatres were declared totally unusable yet ‘staff’ (Post Grad Researchers and Technicians in the main, whilst most senior staff continue to work from home including the Director of ‘Health, Safety & Risk’) are back crammed into unventilated office spaces. Some of which don’t even meet the legal minima for volumetric space per person (Regulation 10 of the Workplace, (Health Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992) of 11 cubic metres per person is the minimum and may be insufficient if, for example, much of the room is taken up by furniture etc. Seems Post Grads don’t matter so much, that sounds familiar…

  2. There is no guideline on what should schools do when there are many cases in the class. My child goes to primary school and currently 30% kids of his class are down with covid19. I am not at all comfortable sending my child to school with such a high rate in single class as I fear that he will bring the infection home just before Christmas. This will ruin our much needed festive season.

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