School bubbles system to end on July 19, says Boris Johnson

Bubbles are to end in schools on July 19, Boris Johnson announced on Monday as he said the "obvious way forward" is testing rather than sending large numbers of children home to self-isolate.

Mr Johnson said that as part of the plan for "living with Covid", a test, trace and isolate system that is "proportionate to the pandemic" will continue to be used.

He told a Downing Street press conference that people will still have to self-isolate if they test positive or are told to do so by NHS Test and Trace, but added: "We are looking to move to a different regime for fully-vaccinated contacts of those testing positive and also for children."

On June 28, The Telegraph launched a campaign calling on ministers to put children first as the country recovers from its Covid lockdowns, with action to bring an end to the disruption in schools.

The Children’s Commissioner, the Archbishop of York and dozens of prominent Tory MPs have backed the campaign, urging the Government to axe the bubbles policy in schools. The policy has led to even whole year groups being sent home to self-isolate for 10 days because one of their classmates tested positive.

There are 385,500 pupils off school due to Covid, according to the latest figures from the Department for Education (DfE) – the vast majority of whom do not have the virus.  

Youngsters in the most disadvantaged parts of the country are almost twice as likely as their peers in wealthier areas to be forced to self-isolate.

Self-isolation exodus from schools

Ministers had originally indicated that they intended to scrap bubbles in time for the new academic year in September. But after coming under intense pressure over the policy, this will be brought forward to July 19 so children can attend summer camps and activities without the restrictions in place.

Mr Johnson said: "The Secretary of State for Education will be announcing later this week how we will move away from sending bubbles home and move away from contact isolation for pupils so as to greatly reduce the impact on schools of Covid outbreaks. And obviously the way forward is with testing rather than by sending the bubbles home."

Whitehall officials are currently waiting to see Public Health England’s analysis of a pilot in which children carried out lateral flow tests at home every day for a week after a classmate tested positive. If successful, the model could replace self-isolation for healthy schoolchildren.

The Prime Minister’s remarks about ending bubbles prompted a backlash from the UK’s largest teachers’ union, which accused him of "neglectful and reckless decision-making".

Dr Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said she "seriously questions the wisdom of the decision to take away so many safety measures" in schools, adding that face masks should be reintroduced for schoolchildren.

"These mitigations are being removed at a time when cases are rising, school outbreaks are at the highest level all year and rising sharply, and children remain unvaccinated and at risk of transmitting the virus and suffering Long Covid themselves," Dr Bousted said.

Nick Brook, the deputy general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers, said ministers must explain why bubbles will no longer be required "despite the soaring infection rates in schools".

He added that no school wanted to see restrictions in place any longer than needed, but "we must ensure that in relaxing rules now we do not create further longer term disruption in the months to come".

Asked about whether children would be vaccinated, Prof Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, said that no decision had yet been reached by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).

Prof Whitty said the JCVI was "very confident that the vaccine would protect children to a high degree", but added: "You want to be confident that the benefits of the vaccine outweigh the risks of the vaccine for the children involved."

He said that since children are generally much less likely to develop severe illness from Covid, there needs to be an "even greater confidence" about the safety of the vaccine because "the risk benefit is potentially going to be more marginal".

Prof Whitty said the JCVI had been "quite rightly taking its time" before making a recommendation to ministers so it could analyse as much data as possible.

Exams

Children should be told what topics to expect on A-level and GCSE exams in 2022, headteachers have said.

Allowing students to have prior knowledge of what they will be examined on is the  “most obvious adjustment” that should be made, according to  Geoff Barton, general secretary Association of School and College Leaders.

His remarks come as ministers are accused of “dithering and delaying” over finalising arrangements for exams in 2022.

A Department for Education spokesperson said they intend for exams to go ahead in 2022 but added: “We are currently considering what more we can do to ensure fairness and the right level of support for pupils, and we will provide further details shortly.

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