Government to 'examine possibility' of collecting data on bubbles and ventilation

The government could soon provide data on the use of bubbles and ventilation of school buildings and will run a new “outbreak investigation” study to check the role of schools in transmission of the virus.

Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and UK Statistics Authority chief Professor Sir Ian Diamond have pledged to “examine the possibility” of publishing more evidence as part of the government’s coronavirus infection survey.

The survey, published weekly by the Office for National Statistics, includes estimated infection rates nationally and in certain sectors. The latest data, published today, shows that the highest positivity rates are now seen in secondary school-aged children, older teenagers and young adults.

Schools have been using bubbles of pupils, which range in size from small groups of pupils to whole year groups, to enable social distancing. They have also been told to keep school sites well ventilated.

The pledge to ask more questions about how the virus is being managed in schools follows a request from the National Education Union, which asked the government to test the hypothesis the rate of growth amongst secondary pupils is the highest because of the “difficulty of social distancing” the “problems of ventilation and the “size of bubbles”.

In their response, Vallance and Diamond said they will “examine the possibility of publishing more evidence around these factors with specific reference to age groups.

“The ability to draw meaningful conclusions from these data is contingent on obtaining a robust enough sample amongst these age groupings. We will look to publish them in future weekly bulletins and/or the monthly articles.”

The union also asked the government to model the potential effects of moving secondary schools and sixth forms to a rota operation “with teachers being in school every day but children attending one week in two – with lessons being in person one week, and on line the next week”.

They were told the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies had already considered rotas earlier in the year “as one of a subset of options for the re-opening of schools”.

It was revealed in May that the government had told schools not to use rota systems for the return of pupils despite scientific advice that it was “likely to be the most effective strategy” for bringing them back.

In their letter, Vallance and Diamond said rotas were “reliant on children in the different groups not mixing (e.g. those attending in week 1 not mixing with those attending in week 2), and on classmates not mixing outside of school and in the time off from school”.

“Its effectiveness is also reduced by multiple children from the same household attending different groups or schools.”

The two officials have also announced that the ongoing schools infection survey, which is being carried out in 50 primary and 100 secondary schools, will expand to include testing of families at a “small number of schools” as part of a new “outbreak investigation”.

They said the extension “may offer some new insights into how many points of infections there are in schools, and whether transmission within the school environment is resulting in further outward transmission to families”.

This is scheduled to happen “in December at the earliest”, and analysis is expected to be published “early next year”.