New Scientific Advisory Committee Set Up

Under the headline: 'Scientists to advise universities on coronavirus infection control to get students back despite dangers of reopening campuses' Hugo Gye (iNews, Thursday 6 August 2020) reported ...

The new body is a response to fears that further and higher education present particular difficulties during the pandemic

The Department for Education has set up a new scientific advisory committee to prepare for the reopening of universities and colleges, over fears students could spread Covid-19 infections across the country.

Scientists who sit on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) have been drafted to serve a sub-committee which is considering the specific issues around further and higher education.

The group was formed this week after Sage warned that more guidance must be published for students and staff before the new term starts in just a few weeks’ time. But the DfE has refused to name its members or explain what exactly the sub-committee is doing.

There is usually a lag of several weeks in publishing research findings submitted to Sage, meaning that worried young people and their parents may not be able to see the committee’s advice before the start of term next month.

Ministers have made multiple public statements about the importance of reopening schools on schedule, but have said less about further or higher education. DfE officials are adamant they are working hard behind the scenes to help colleges and universities prepare for welcoming students to socially distanced campuses, and using social media to reach young people planning to resume their education.

At a meeting last month, Sage warned that more work had to be done to deal with the particular problems posed by the sector. The scientists concluded: “There are features specific to further education (FE) and higher education (HE) settings which differ from other educational settings (such as schools) and other workplaces.

“Around two-thirds of FE learners were in some form of employment pre-Covid-19, often as part of a course or apprenticeship. FE learners are more likely to be from groups identified as vulnerable (e.g. based on age, income or ethnicity). FE educators also tend to be older than schoolteachers.

“HE settings often generate internal (and international) migration to towns and cities, and involve formation of new households, particularly at the start and end of terms. There may also be movement during the term between households.

“University student populations engage in a broad range of activities, which result in complex networks. These factors and others should be considered in guidance to these sectors ahead of autumn terms starting.”

A number of institutions have announced measures such as virtual freshers’ weeks to discourage students from mixing in a way that could spread Covid-19. Universities UK said: “Universities UK, university leaders and academic experts are in regular dialogue with the Department for Education to ensure that higher education is properly considered in the Government’s efforts to tackle and reduce Covid-19 and we look forward to engaging with this sub-committee if and when its final details are established.”

Scientists to advise universities on coronavirus infection control to get students back despite dangers of reopening campuses

NOTE: Professor Michael Otsuka (LSE Department of Philosophy, Logic & Scientific Method) Tweeted: Welcome news that a SAGE committee is being set up to address risks of spread of infection to surrounding communities & beyond associated with re-opening of universities & colleges.This is needed because there has been little public indication from @UniversitiesUK or @AlistairJarvis that universities are taking the steps necessary to mitigate these risks to surrounding communities & beyond.

This is indeed a welcome development though, as Professor Otsuka points out later in his Tweet thread: As others have noted, this committee should have been set up months ago. To date, government guidance to universities has been minimal and lax.

Unfortunately, this is reflected in the total lack of genuine and useful information (for residents) from either of Nottingham's universities, or indeed Nottingham City Council and Nottingham Public Health.