SAGE rejects staggering but wants more planning in HE

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) hasn’t specifically or explicitly discussed universities or students for months, but did have a dedicated discussion on the issues at its meeting on 14th January.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

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It’s not clear if there is a paper to accompany the minutes of the discussion – if there is it’s not been uploaded yet – but the discussion in and of itself has some interesting aspects to it.

First of all, SAGE 76 noted that modelling shows that students are highly connected through their courses and accommodation which makes them susceptible to higher rates of transmission. No surprises there.

Similarly, it noted that evidence shows the importance of a combination of measures to identify and contain infection, and to support students during outbreaks. We’re talking large scale randomised testing, contact tracing, and quarantine all necessary tactics for containing campus outbreaks. Again, no surprises there.

What’s perhaps more surprising – given it was the big plan until the “new variant” appeared – is that modelling on the impact of staggering the return of students suggests that this approach is likely “to have limited effect” on reducing the expected level of transmission.

We never were sure on where the big “stagger their arrival” idea came from – yet a lot of resources around all parts of the UK, and in central government, universities and family homes, were invested in this approach.

The good news is that modelling was telling the committee that asymptomatic testing would have some impact, and likely to be necessary to avoid very large outbreaks given the transmissible variant now circulating. Efficacy and participation rates remain major questions here though.

The phrase “further quantitative and qualitative data is needed on the feasibility and acceptability of universal, asymptomatic testing of staff and students in universities” has a particular flavour to it. It’s almost as if SAGE was sat there thinking “how have we just run a giant pre-Xmas pilot exercise in almost every university in the country, but seem to have so little in the way of evaluation of how it worked, why people did or didn’t participate, etc.”

SAGE wanted that further data to include:

…broader, more diverse student and staff populations, and [a] focus on student perceptions, experience, and responses… greater understanding of the enablers and barriers to engagement will inform more effective programmes.”

Let’s hope some universities somewhere are working on this right now.

The minutes also show the scientists arguing that maximising uptake of testing and protective behaviours among those who need to be on campus for in-person courses will require support packages tailored to specific needs if testing indicates the need to self-isolate (high confidence). We are still some distance from tailoring support to students for self-isolation unless they happen to live in halls of residence.

The best line?

Long-term planning beyond the end of the spring term is required to provide greater certainty for students and staff, and to help minimise risk of national transmission”.

Amen.

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