Ministers are planning to end the “bubble” self-isolation system in England’s schools in the autumn after new figures showed the number of pupils absent because of Covid-19 has quadrupled since the start of June.
Gavin Williamson, education secretary, is said by government officials to be considering two options for the start of the new academic year, including simply treating Covid-19 “like any normal sickness”.
“You wouldn’t expect children to self-isolate just because someone else in the class caught the flu,” said one official, briefed on the deliberations.
The second option would be to use mass testing in schools as an alternative to sending home large numbers of students in “bubbles” to self-isolate.
Vaccinations for older children and those with underlying health conditions are being considered, depending on scientific advice.
Weekly data from the Department for Education published on Tuesday showed 5.1 per cent of children were absent from school for coronavirus-related reasons on June 24, an increase from 3.3 per cent the previous week and 1.2 per cent on June 10.
The absence rate in secondary schools alone has risen to 6.2 per cent. One Williamson ally said: “Things have to change. We know Covid doesn’t have a significant serious impact on children and by September most adults will be vaccinated.”
Around 385,000 children in England were absent from school as a result of the pandemic, of whom the majority — 336,000 — were isolating because of potential contact with the virus from inside or outside school.
The latest figures came as ministers made a commitment to review the current policy of sending home large “bubbles” of students who have come into contact with Covid cases.
But as a variant of the virus spreads among unvaccinated children, ministers will have to strike a balance between protecting education and suppressing outbreaks.
New health secretary Sajid Javid, who indicated he wants England to learn to “live with” coronavirus after replacing Matt Hancock in the role, told MPs this week he had asked for “fresh advice” on the current “bubbles” policy.
“Data is changing all the time and we must ensure that we keep that under review,” he said.
Ministers are also looking to the results of a medical trial, due to finish on Wednesday, testing whether children in contact with Covid-19 cases can take daily rapid tests and keep attending school if they are negative, instead of self-isolating. Schools minister Nick Gibb on Tuesday said ministers would look at whether the data showed this to be an “effective alternative”.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, which represents headteachers, said the requirement to trace all contacts of known cases was “incredibly time-consuming” for schools and colleges and involved “yet more educational disruption”.
However, some parent groups have expressed fears over the idea of removing the self-isolation policy.
Sarah Saul, a founding member of advocacy group Safer Ed for All, she was “shocked and appalled” at the possibility of lifting restrictions. “We could be storing up potential problems for the future,” she said.
Another pressing issue in Javid’s in-tray is whether to extend the vaccine rollout to children, something that remains unresolved after the decision drove a wedge between government officials and the Joint Committee for Vaccination and Immunisation.
Earlier this month, a draft report from the JCVI advised ministers against the immediate vaccination of under-18s, leading Hancock to seek advice from scientists outside the committee in an attempt to hurry through jabs for those aged 16 and 17, according to people familiar with the matter.
The UK medicines regulator approved the use of BioNTech/Pfizer for 12-15-year-olds at the start of June, but JCVI members are wary of signing off on a mass vaccination programme for adolescents after official data from the US identified a “likely association” between mRNA vaccines and rare cases of severe heart inflammation in teenage boys.
Sir Kevan Collins, who advised on the government’s educational catch-up programme before resigning this month, said separately on Tuesday he was “completely convinced” that a lack of action on schools recovery would widen the gap for the poorest youngsters.
“The biggest, I think, experience about Covid was the level of variation,” said Collins. “That’s going to be a feature of our system if we’re not careful . . . We need to act now.”