DfE chief scientific adviser admits he hasn't assessed school reopening guidance

The Department for Education’s chief scientific adviser admitted he has not assessed whether guidance on reopening schools is effective, adding the current advice is “draft” and “will be developed”.

Appearing in front of the Parliamentary science and technology committee today, Osama Rahman also admitted the DfE had done no modelling on the impact on transmission rates of starting to reopen schools after the May half term break.

During a hearing that left some MPs visibly bemused, Rahman also suggested the government guidance issued yesterday on safety is a “draft”, and will be reissued after further consultation with Public Health England.

He also said the decision to reopen schools was made by cabinet, not the DfE.

Carol Monaghan, the SNP’s education spokesperson, said that as a former teacher, she “did not think the profession will be satisfied or put at ease with what they are hearing”.

It comes just hours after education secretary Gavin Williamson accused unions who have raised concerns about the reopening plans as “scaremongering”.

Asked about the transmission rate among children during the hearing, Rahman said the evidence is mixed, and there’s a “low degree of confidence in evidence they might transmit it less”.

Monaghan responded: “We’re putting together hundreds of potential vectors that can then go and transmit. Is that correct?”

Rahman said: “Possibly, depending on school sizes.” (See video of exchange below)

‘The department has not done any modelling’

Education committee chair Robert Halfon asked what scientific evidence base underpinned the decision to reopen schools to pupils in reception, year 1 and year 6, and what modelling had been done.

“The department has not done any modelling,” Rahman replied. “One of the SAGE groups has done various bits of modelling for different scenarios on what years you can bring back. My understanding is those will be published in due course.”

Halfon responded that “surely you must have scientific evidence the base underpinning the department’s decision?”, to which Rahman responded: “That was a cabinet decision following advice from SAGE.”

When asked how he was sure the cabinet had taken the evidence into account, Rahman said that advice goes to the secretary of state who then expresses his view to cabinet.

“The secretary of state is informed of what the science says, as are policy officials in the department.”

DfE guidance for schools is “first draft”

Rahman also admitted he had made no assessment on how effectively actions proposed by the government for schools to reopen safely can be implemented.

He said the department is working with Public Health England on the “first draft advice” and will be “discussing this further with PHE and others … in terms of feedback”.

He later said he would expect the guidance published yesterday to “be developed”, adding: “Certainly, my role will be to continue, if we have updated consensus on the science from SAGE, will be to ensure that that feeds into the guidance.”

When pressed that any reissuing of guidance gives schools “very little time” to prepare to open, Rahman said: “The June 1 opening is dependent on a bunch of conditions being met as I think the prime minister announced. So schools have been asked to prepare for that opening.”

Adviser didn’t attend SAGE’s PPE meetings

Teachers have raised concerns about government guidance stating in most situations they aren’t required to wear personal protective equipment.

When asked what evidence the department has considered in relation to this, Rahman said: “I don’t know, I don’t think I was necessary at the PPE meeting. You’ll have to ask SAGE that.”

Greg Clark, chair of the committee, replied: “But you’re the chief scientific adviser to the DfE.”

Rahman responded: “I am. I’m not sure when they discussed PPE, it was a general PPE discussion.”

He had earlier said that he gets the SAGE minutes and papers for meetings he attends, which are used to brief  the department’s operational centre and minister’s offices.

Williamson earlier told the Commons he was “more than happy” to share “all the advice that we have received” from SAGE, the government’s scientific advisory group.

He also revealed he’d asked scientific advisers “to give briefings for the sector” to “help them understand” the decision.

“When you have medical and scientific advice that is saying that it is the right time to start bringing schools back in a phased and controlled manner, it seems only the right thing to do so, and the only responsible thing to do,” he told MPs.

He did not give a date for when any advice would be published.