Covid: Test and trace to replace self-isolation for school bubbles

ITV News UK Editor Paul Brand reports on the latest changes to isolation and school bubbles

Contact tracing by NHS Test and Trace will replace the requirement for entire school bubbles to isolate after a positive Covid contact, the education secretary has announced.

Following the announcement that the government plans to scrap legal Covid restrictions from July 19, Gavin Williamson set out his strategy for easing measures in educational settings.

The announcement was made on Tuesday, amid record numbers of pupil absences.

Mr Williamson told the Commons: “We recognise that the system of bubbles and isolation is causing disruption to many children’s education. That is why we’ll be ending bubbles and transferring contact tracing to the NHS Test and Trace system for early years settings, schools and colleges.”

The Department for Education found around one in 12 (8.5%) state school pupils did not attend class for Covid-19-related reasons on July 1. The percentage is up from 5.1% on June 24 and 3.3% on June 17.

The number of absences has been rising sharply in recent weeks, coinciding with the steep rise in Covid cases as the Delta variant spreads across the UK. Currently, if a pupil in a bubble tests positive for Covid then the whole group must self-isolate at home.

The definition of what makes up a bubble can be defined by the school, but they must ensure the bubbles do not mix. This can create logistical headaches for already overstretched staff.Often these bubbles are entire year groups, or in some cases whole schools.

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“I do not think it is acceptable that children should face greater restrictions over and above those of wider society, especially since they have given up so much to keep older generations safe during this pandemic,” Mr Williamson said.

“Where there are outbreaks schools and colleges may be contacted by NHS Test and Trace and they will also work with local health teams as they currently do now."

Mr Williamson added the government wants to ensure that from the August 16 children will only need to isolate if they have tested positive for Covid-19.

In addition to ending bubbles, it will “not be necessary to stagger start and finish times” at schools, Mr Williamson said.

Gurjit Shergill, headteacher at Arden Primary School in Birmingham, said she plans to continue implementing "a lot" of the school's Covid measures.

"For example, the environment changes and the organisation of staggered drop-offs and collections," she said.

"We still feel that we want to hold on to those because it works for our children and our community. That will help us to keep the children in school."

  • Year 11 pupils at Horndean Technology College describe the number of times they've had to self-isolate over the school year

Julie Summerfield at Horndean Technology College said teachers will have more time to teach when the NHS tacks over contact tracing for schoolchildren.

But she added "on the other hand, I'm apprehensive, because it feels like losing control of something you've very much been in control of, and I'll be very dependent on the information I'll be given from the NHS.

Shadow education secretary Kate Green said Mr Williamson's statement offered "no clarity on how the government will stop infections spiralling”.

She cited government statistics which show 150,000 schoolchildren "were not in the classroom with confirmed or suspected cases of coronavirus or because of potential contact with a case outside the classroom."

Ms Green added: “It’s not just bubbles that have driven pupils from the classroom, it’s the Conservatives’ negligence in letting the Delta variant take hold at the same time as they failed to support schools with the necessary precautions.”

The changes within education settings will come in at Step 4 of the road map, which is currently planned for July 19.

Lockdown rules in England: What's changing from July 19

What has happened to social distancing and the rule of six?

The 'one metre plus' rule has been scrapped entirely, as of July 19 in England. However, some guidance to maintain social distancing in certain situations will remain in place of the legal restrictions.

Social distancing guidance will continue if someone is Covid positive and self-isolating, or in airports, or other ports of entry, to avoid travellers arriving from amber or red-list countries mixing with those from green list areas.

Limits on social contact in England have disappeared, meaning the end of the rule of six indoors and the limit of 30 people for outdoor gatherings.

Do I still need to wear a face mask?

There is now no legal requirements to wear face coverings - but guidance still encourages using masks in some settings, including hospitals, healthcare settings and in crowded enclosed public spaces.

Has the working from home guidance changed?

The guidance on working from home has gone. It's ultimately down to employers to decide whether to keep staff at home or in the office, but the government say employers are able to plan the return of staff to the workplace.

What about weddings and funerals?

The current limits on numbers of people who can attend weddings, funerals and other life events has ended.

What's happening in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland?

The changes to Covid rules announced by Boris Johnson, only impact England and will not change regulations in Northern Ireland, Wales or Scotland.

The Welsh Government “would like to move together” with other parts of the UK in lifting coronavirus restrictions but will only do so if it is “right for Wales”, health minister Eluned Morgan said on Monday 5 July.

As of July 19, restrictions in Scotland have eased, with all areas of the country moving to level 0. The government is aiming to lift all major restrictions in Scotland by August 9.

In Northern Ireland, some significant restrictions have already been eased including allowing the resumption of live music and the lifting of caps on organised outdoor gatherings.

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The requirement for fully-vaccinated close contacts of positive cases to isolate will also end in Step 4.

Speaking just before Mr Williamson in the House of Commons, the Health Secretary said the approach allowed the government to "manage the virus in a way that is proportionate to the pandemic, while maintaining the freedoms that are so important to us all."On Monday, the Prime Minister said rules on mask-wearing, social distancing and limits on gatherings will also be scrapped in Step 4.In a Downing Street briefing, Boris Johnson said the government would "move away from legal restrictions and allow people to make their own informed decisions about how to manage the virus."

The PM warned, however, this was not the moment to get "demob happy".

He said the pandemic was "far from over" with the possibility that there could be "50,000 cases detected per day by July 19".

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called the proposal "reckless" and demanded a "balanced approach" to lockdown easing.