Rounders bats at the ready as Steps replace Tiers in England

I’m not making this up. The tiers have become steps and gone into reverse!

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

In England the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Steps) (England) Regulations 2021 have been published ahead of their widely expected parliamentary approval later this week and the reintroduction of the outdoor “rule of six” next Monday.

And extraordinarily, after a year of tiers, there’s a new framework to contend with called “Steps”. That’s right – the old tiers are now Better Best Forgotten! They should be the Last Thing on Your Mind! Words Are Not Enough to describe the Tragedy of the old rules! Although it turns out that many of the old rules are still in these new rules. Better the Devil You Know and all that!

Steps are a lot like the old tiers (but not like the DfE tiers) because different parts of the country can be on different steps at any given time, but they’re not like the old tiers because we’re now coming out of restrictions, so they start on Step One. And they look like they’re mapped onto the already announced dates-not-data dates of 29 March for Step One, 12 April for Step Two and 17 May for Step Three. The problem is that there’s nothing really resembling a relaxation for students and universities in this approach. We’re on the naughty step all the way through.

Basically for higher education there’s not that much to say. The education and training exemption for gatherings remains as needlessly tight as it has been all [calendar] year – the gathering has to be “reasonably necessary” for the purposes of a “course of study” or “essential life skills training” provided by a higher education provider. That doesn’t sound like the environmental society can hold their risk assessed and socially distanced film screening for a while yet, which does raise real questions about any dramatic “return to campus” [activity] after Easter. Maybe Michelle Donelan’s not as worried about students missing out on the “wider experience” after all.

There’s a few things in here that could conceivably keep students occupied (and I don’t mean locking down their halls again). Exception 17 for “protests” would work if said protest is organised by a business, a charitable, benevolent or philanthropic institution, a public body or a political body, and the gathering organiser takes the required precautions in relation to the gathering. Students’ unions could organise some meta-protests about the government’s proposed clampdown on [student] protest, for example.

Exception 19 allows people to go out campaigning in pairs for the local elections, which could surely act as a boost in membership and activity of student political societies and invigorate our democracy in the process. Oh, and naturally students can bust the rule of six outdoors if their “household” consists of twenty people on a floor in halls, as long as they only go out in a household group.

It remains the case that cafes and canteens aimed specifically at those in educational accommodation for students attending higher education courses can open, and more generally campus cafes or canteens at higher education providers, can still open where there is no practical alternative for staff and students at that institution to obtain food or drink, as has been the case since before Christmas.

The “rule of six” (outdoors, in a group of up to 6 from any number of households, or in a group of any size from up to two households) stages a comeback on Monday in time for the warmer weather, but anyone wanting to play sport beyond those limits outdoors will need to do so within the context of “a business, a charitable, benevolent or philanthropic institution or a public body” for the purposes of “allowing persons who are not elite sportspersons to take part in any sport or other fitness related activity”. That should be good news for SU officers with a box full of rounders bats ready to roll, although naturally they have to “take the required precautions” which includes looking at guidance from, for example, Rounders England when prepping a risk assessment.

There’s also still exemptions for charitable services (SUs are charities but that’s not an exemption that DfE has exactly been championing in its guidance), communal worship and support groups, but apart from what’s above it all feels a lot like square pegs in round holes if we’re talking about anything on campus other than straightforward teaching as of next week, despite the fact that most straightforward teaching is pretty much done for the year in a few weeks. Even perfectly safe and carefully risk managed outdoor activity looks banned until all of these steps go, unless it’s explicitly linked to a course or a kickabout.

The “going home for Easter” clause is present here – exception 14 to the gatherings rules is that the gathering is reasonably necessary to enable a student who is undertaking a higher education course on 29th March 2021 to move on one occasion from their student household to one other household (“vacation household”) for the purposes of a vacation, or to return to their term time accommodation after the vacation or any earlier vacation during which the student returned home as permitted under the old regs.

They have to have completed leg one of the two before 29th April, and just like at Christmas they once they’re in their vacation household they’re treated as a member of that household (and not as a member of their student household) until the date on which they return to their student household.

Doubtless some DfE guidance will now follow. But at the risk of sounding like the world’s most broken record – anyone preparing to mandate a full return to campus (and rent paying) next term for students’ “mental health” is going to have their work cut out pretending that the SU President with a rounders bat, a couple of hours of teaching and some already arranged online exams really makes the move back worth the risk. Ironically, the fact that it’s all been laid out in advance this time makes it harder still.

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