Some new SAGE minutes won’t cheer you up

We’ve got a fresh batch of minutes and papers from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE).

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Having been worried for a few weeks that the quality of data and intel on students and their behaviour going into SAGE isn’t stellar, have we missed anything good being considered that is revealed today?

We haven’t. And in fact what we have is more evidence that lazy or in some cases dangerous assumptions about student behaviour have clouded the advice given to DfE which has then re-emerged as advice to universities.

It’s mainly minutes we’re looking at here with universities and/or the young discussed at each of the 20th August, 1st September and 3rd September meetings.

Maybe it’s the way the discussion has been minuted, but the first recorded element on 1st September is just surreal. Arguing that there are also risks in not reopening higher education settings or moving to only online teaching, the discussion noted risks like movement between education and workplace settings, the use of public transport, social interactions and students and others living in shared accommodation or with their families.

“These factors combined probably pose a greater risk for transmission than teaching on-campus”, says the paper – framing the “great migration” as utterly unstoppable and completely inevitable. Which it arguably was by the time SAGE got round to this discussion in September.

The committee noted that transmission risk may be exacerbated by younger adults being more likely to be asymptomatic or to have milder illness than older adults and therefore being less likely to self-isolate, and suggests that identification of infected individuals will be important and will require engagement with testing and contact tracing systems. Pity there’s almost nothing in the DfE guidance to address the huge barriers here.

We get (again) an assertion that the risk in higher education may be “national” due to the movement of students but for FE “local or regional” because of households and workplaces, and we again here the assertion that risks of larger outbreaks spilling over from HE institutions are more likely to occur towards the end of the academic term to coincide with the Christmas and New Year period “when students return home”.

Again, for those at the back. Commuter students don’t only exist in FE. And as well as “Harry Potter” boarders and commuters, there’s a whole mass of students who attend university in their region and return home most weekends. The lack of data/understanding here would be bad enough if we were planning a student focus group, let alone advising on an actual pandemic.

We do get a clear sense that SAGE understands some of the complexities in the face to face activities “mix”. Whilst remote leaming (e.g. online) reduces transmission risk and should be considered where feasible, SAGE notes the risks of limiting face-to-face attendance at educational settings, including potential mental health impacts and the long-term impacts on socially deprived or marginalised groups.

What a pity that since SAGE expressed these concerns some universities have gone on to define anything that isn’t “teaching” as outside of the bounds of education for the purposes of the “rule of six” laws. If anyone’s after a handy guide as to what, in the grand scheme of higher education activity counts as education, the Charity Commission’s guide here is as good as any.

As well as the various issues concerning universities and students that variously ended up in its advice and the DfE guidance, the 3rd September minutes are the first time when SAGE notes an increasing proportion of positive tests occurring in younger people, particularly in the 20-29 age group:

Young people may have more contacts and be less likely to socially distance with each other than they do with older people. This means that transmission within these age groups is likely to be faster than transmission from these age groups into older age groups (where the consequences are more severe).

The problem – again – is that the above paragraph is marked “low confidence and poor evidence base”, and SAGE goes on to agree that further information on the “occupations and activities” of all newly infected individuals would help, because age data alone are unlikely to give the full picture. We didn’t know whether SAGE is now looking at better data gathered by the privatised Test and Trace service, but let’s not bet on it.

Finally, we get that recommendation that appeared in the paper that emerged asserting that for higher education settings, the specific sector risk “will require national oversight, monitoring and decision-making”.

Even if that has been established, students aren’t even required to tell universities that they have symptoms or Covid in most providers, universities are not legally required to collect attendance data unless they run a cafe or bar, and students have plenty of incentives to be cagey about where they’ve been this week with tracers. Forgive me for not being full of confidence on this one either.

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