Nicola Sturgeon’s Covid advisers are considering whether levels of coronavirus circulating in schools can now be considered “acceptable”, it has emerged as she faced demands to scrap self-isolation rules for children before the start of the new term.
Minutes from a meeting of the Scottish Government’s Covid advisory group showed they agreed that the previous strategy of focusing on reducing transmission in classrooms may need to change to put more emphasis on pupils’ “wider wellbeing”.
An education sub-group is now weighing up “whether a level of circulation of the virus in schools can be considered acceptable” and if guidance on mask wearing needs to be changed.
It is also considering a “test and release” scheme that would mean children deemed to be close contacts of positive cases could return to classrooms if they provided daily negative tests, rather than having to self-isolate for 10 days.
The minutes were published as the Scottish Conservatives called for the SNP to end the self-isolation rule for pupils before the start of the new school term next month.
Oliver Mundell, the Scottish Conservatives’ shadow education secretary, said protecting children’s learning time and mental health should come first, arguing teachers, parents and pupils deserve clarity well before the summer holidays end.
In a statement to the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday, Ms Sturgeon disclosed she had asked the education sub-group to consider “whether, to what extent and with what mitigations we can remove the self-isolation requirement for young people in education settings”.
The more transmissible delta variant caused havoc in Scotland’s classrooms before the summer break, with nearly 30,000 children absent despite the vast majority of them not having the virus.
The latest daily statistics on Wednesday recorded 2,636 new cases, well down on the peak of 4,234 a fortnight ago, and 11 more deaths, the highest since March 30. The number of people in hospital increased by nine to 515 and in intensive care by five to 46.
Separate National Records of Scotland figures showed Covid was mentioned on 30 death certificates last week, up nine on the previous week. However, only nine of the fatalities were women and 21 were men.
The First Minister this week rowed back on the reduction she had promised in Covid restrictions by unveiling a “modified” Level 0 and postponing the removal of social distancing outdoors.
However, her Covid advisory group, which includes senior public health officials and expert academics, concluded: “Children appear to still be at low risk of severe disease, hospitalisation and death from the pandemic.”
In the minutes of their June 10 meeting, published on Wednesday, they said: “The current approach of going in hard, quickly, is resulting in a significant number of children being absent from school due to self-isolation.
“The question of the strategic objective was raised. The health of children is one consideration, the impact of school transmission on the wider community is another, and the disruption of children’s education another.
“The Group agreed the importance of minimising disruption to schools and children’s education.”
Getting schools back to normal ‘should come first’
Mr Mundell said: “There is just one month left before schools go back, and parents, pupils and teachers need to be able to prepare in advance for what’s going to happen.
“Getting schools back to normal should still come first, so ending self-isolation rules for pupils who are close contacts must be higher on the government’s agenda.”
Ms Sturgeon promised on Tuesday to make a decision “well in advance of the new term”, but Mr Mundell said she had failed to provide any specific timescale.
Meanwhile, Scottish Labour called for an “urgent plan” to fully vaccinate Scots who are starting university this autumn.
Michael Marra, the party’s education spokesman, noted they would need to receive their first jab this week if they were to be fully immunised before the start of the new term.
The Covid advisory group minutes stated the majority of students should have been offered their first dose by early autumn and “there may be benefit” in setting up vaccination centres in locations that are easy for them to reach.
The Scottish Government referred to the part of Ms Sturgeon’s statement on Tuesday that pledged to “set out our conclusions well in advance of the new term”.