Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has told MPs he expects the removal of school “bubbles” to be announced as part of step four of England’s roadmap for lifting COVID restrictions.
Speaking in the House of Commons, Mr Williamson said he wanted to see restrictions on schools and colleges – including the bubble system – removed “as quickly as possible along with wider restrictions in society”.
“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 over the last 18 months,” he added.
“Further steps will be taken to reduce the number of children who have to self-isolate, including looking at the outcomes of a daily contact testing trial, as we consider a new model for keeping children in schools and colleges.
“We constantly assess all available data and we expect to be able to confirm plans to lift restrictions and bubbles as part of step four.
“Once that decision has been made, we’ll issue guidance immediately to schools.”
However, the education secretary signalled changes to coronavirus measures for schools might not come prior to the end of the summer term at the end of next month.
“We very much want to see the lifting of more restrictions and the bubbles within schools as part of the next step,” he told MPs.
“This is a decision that has to be made across government as part of the next stage of our roadmap.
“We will of course be informing schools and keeping them up to date as to that progress in plenty of time before the start of the next term.”
The government has come under growing pressure to remove or alter the bubble system after figures showed the number of children off school due to COVID-19 in England is at its highest rate since schools reopened in March after the country’s third national lockdown.
Trials have recently been held on using daily contact testing for children as an alternative to an entire school bubble – made up of a class or even whole year group – having to self-isolate if one of their number is infected.
Mr Williamson said ministers were expecting a report from Public Health England on those trials “in the coming weeks”.
Asked if children would not have to return to bubbles in the autumn, Mr Williamson later replied: “I don’t want to be pre-empting the decision of cross-government in terms of the next stage.
“But our direction is very clear about lifting the restrictions and ensuring that children are not in the situation where they have to bubble – it’s very much part of the course of this road map.
“And we will be very much expecting that children would not be facing that in September.”
The education secretary also told MPs he wanted to end regular COVID testing for schoolchildren “at the earliest and most realistic possible stage”.
“We do want to see schools return to normality and we don’t want children to feel as if there’s an extra layer of things that they have to do that we as adults don’t have to do and I think that is very important,” he added.
Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green said school leaders would “dread another last-minute announcement” and said they would “need time to put plans in place and their staff also desperately need a break over the summer”.
Data released by the Department of Education showed around 5.1% of all pupils in state-funded schools did not attend school for COVID-19 related reasons on 24 June – a total of 375,000 children.
This was up from 3.3% on 17 June and 1.2% on 10 June.
Amid rising cases of the Delta variant of COVID, the government postponed the fourth and final step of its roadmap for lifting lockdown restrictions to 19 July.