The Secretary of State for Education (Gavin Williamson)
With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement on restrictions that will be lifted for schools, early years, childcare, colleges and universities when we move to step 4, which is currently anticipated to be on 19 July. The Prime Minister has announced that at step 4 we will be able to remove swathes of restrictions on daily life and that, after 16 months of sacrifice by people across society, we will return ever closer to normality.
We have faced down, together, an historic public health emergency, and we all owe a great debt of gratitude to pupils, parents and teachers, who gave up so much as we took action to save lives. However, I highlight to everyone that step 4 does not mean the end of the pandemic. Some restrictions will be kept in place as we move towards more of the population being fully vaccinated. Although the pandemic is not over, we are moving into a new phase of managing covid, from strict rules towards ever greater personal responsibility.
When I came to this place last week, I again set out my priority to put the interests of children first. We know from our own experience and evidence that children are better off in classrooms with their friends and teachers. Since 8 March, millions of children and young people have been back in the classroom learning with their friends and teachers. That is hugely valuable for their wellbeing as well as for their education.
I also made it clear that 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 the pandemic. Therefore, having balanced the risks, I am pleased to tell Members across the House that key restrictions on education and childcare will come to an end as we move to step 4.
Although keeping children in consistent groups was essential to control the spread of the virus when our population was less vaccinated, we recognise that the system of bubbles and isolation is causing disruption to many children’s education. That is why we will be ending bubbles and transferring contact tracing to the NHS Test and Trace system for early years settings, schools and colleges. 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 do now. We are also setting out new rules that mean that, from 16 August, children will need to isolate only if they have tested positive for covid-19. I am also pleased to be able to say that there will be no restrictions on in-person teaching and learning in universities, unless students are advised to isolate or impacted by local outbreaks.
From step 4, a more proportionate set of controls will apply in early years, schools, colleges and higher education institutions. These will maintain a baseline of protective measures in education settings while maximising attendance and minimising disruption to children and young people’s education. In addition to ending bubbles, it will not be necessary to stagger start and finish times. Schools and colleges may, of course, continue with those measures until the end of the summer term if they so wish.
My right hon. Friend the Health Secretary outlined earlier today that we can ease restrictions on the self-isolation rules for close contacts of someone who has tested positive for covid-19. In education settings, all other existing measures, including guidance on isolation of contacts, will stay in place until the end of this term, in line with isolation rules for the rest of the population as more adults are vaccinated. Settings will continue to have a role in working with health protection teams in the case of a local outbreak. Where necessary, some measures may need to be reintroduced.
From 16 August, those under the age of 18 will no longer be required to self-isolate if they are contacted by NHS Test and Trace as a close contact of a positive covid-19 case. That will balance the need to keep children safe with allowing them to get the education that they deserve and need. Instead, children will be contacted by Test and Trace, informed they have been in close contact with a positive case and advised to take a PCR test. Eighteen-year-olds will be treated in the same way as children until four months after their 18th birthday to allow them to have the opportunity to get fully vaccinated.
Having listened to teachers, and balancing the risks to health and education to maximise attendance and minimise disruption to children and young people’s education, some protective measures, including enhanced hygiene and ventilation, will remain in place for the autumn term. From step 4, face coverings will no longer be advised for pupils, students, staff and visitors either in classrooms or in communal areas and social distancing will no longer be necessary.
As I mentioned earlier, testing programmes remain important as we move cautiously out of restrictions. With that in mind, secondary schools and colleges will be asked to provide two on-site tests to their students at the start of term, with regular home testing continuing until the end of September, when that will be reviewed. It is vital that secondary school and college students continue to test for the last few weeks of this term and throughout September. Education settings still operating over the summer will continue to test twice a week, with asymptomatic test kits still available to families over the summer break as well.
I want to encourage all teachers, educational staff and eligible students to get their vaccines. It is incredibly important for all staff to get the second dose of a vaccine as soon as they are eligible, so that they secure the strongest possible protection against covid-19. In line with wider changes to isolation from 16 August, if in close contact with someone who has tested positive, fully vaccinated teachers will be able to remain in the classroom from the autumn term.
My Department has just set out more detail and published new guidance for arrangements in education settings from step 4, covering both the summer period and the following term, when children will return to school. I want to take this opportunity to assure Members that headteachers in their constituencies can contact the Department for Education if they have any questions about the new guidance that we have published.
No Government would want to restrict people’s freedom in the way we have had to do since the spread of covid-19. We have prioritised education since the start of this pandemic. We made sure that schools and colleges were the last to close but the first to open. We kept school and college places open to vulnerable children and those of key workers throughout the pandemic, and procured millions of laptops and tablets for children to learn at home. None of this could have been achieved without the incredible work of our inspirational teachers and wider educational staff, and I thank parents and students, who have shown patience and flexibility over the last 18 months.
I know that many colleagues will agree that today, as a nation, we prize the role of schools, colleges and universities more than ever before. With the ending of these restrictions, children and young people will be able to get on with their education and lives while we continue to manage this pandemic. I commend this statement to the House.