Education Union say no data – no return in Somerset

The National Education Union’s Robin Head wrote to the Public Health Director of Somerset, Trudi Grant, this morning. His letter sets out concerns about schools returning across Somerset when we don’t know how the pandemic is progressing here.

Mr head points out that much of the evidence around the “R” number is anecdotal. Although a figure is published for the South West, a separate one is not published locally for Somerset. If as is suggested, the R number is heading above 1, Robin Head questions if it can be safe to allow schools to return.

Mr Head suggests that the alert level for Somerset is likely now: Level four – a high or rising level of transmission – enforced social distancing. London is at Level three – the virus is in general circulation – social distancing relaxed

He also notes that last week there was a sharp rise in cases in the Somerset West and Taunton Districtand asks “do you as the Public Health (PH) Director have any understanding as to what the underlying factors are?

He concludes by being generally supportive but noting ” The NEU and other Trade Unions feel that the planned significant increase in school attendance planned for during the course of this term should be accompanied by a full Somerset-specific outbreak risk assessment conducted by you as the SCC PH Director. That timely Somerset-specific risk assessment could be a constructive part of reassuring parents, schools, all schools’ staff and councillors that the phased return plans in Somerset are underpinned by science and data.”

You can read the full text of the letter below:

Dear Trudi,

Somerset County Council (SCC) is both the Local Education Authority and the Public Health lead for Somerset. These two key local powers will be crucial to assessing coronavirus risks across Somerset and applying local solutions to local outbreak conditions, rather than having a National top-down one-size-fits-all approach. It will hopefully allow Somerset to be driven by the science applied to our local outbreak conditions and measures.

SCC has produced a good Coronavirus Dashboard and we would expect at this later stage of the pandemic that Somerset is developing that further and herein are our suggestions for improvements in measures and recognising the need for greater agility in tracking the outbreak progress across Somerset.

We now know that R can be calculated for the SW Region and that it is now at a worrying high 1.0 level. Is it possible for R to be calculated for Somerset? That would allow for Somerset-specific outbreak risk assessments to be taken periodically.

Is it possible to have a SW regional and/or Somerset-specific Covid-19 Alert Level? Alert Levels are:

  • Level five (red) – a “material risk of healthcare services being overwhelmed” – extremely strict social distancing
  • Level four – a high or rising level of transmission – enforced social distancing
  • Level three – the virus is in general circulation – social distancing relaxed
  • Level two – the number of cases and transmission are low – minimal social distancing
  • Level one (green) – Covid-19 is no longer present in the UK – no social distancing

London may now be at Level 3 but the SW and Somerset may remain at Level 4 (or if the R rises above 1.0 we could be “transitioning too Level 5”). Coronavirus cases across Somerset are reported by each of the four Districts in Somerset and if R can be calculated at that District level that would be even better.

Late last week there was a sharp rise in cases in the Somerset West and Taunton District (which contains Musgrove Park General Hospital). Do you as the Public Health (PH) Director have any understanding as to what the underlying factors are?

The NEU and other trade unions are in support of a careful and safe return for children in our schools when the science and the local outbreak conditions allow. In London, the lower R and later stage of the outbreak may well allow for a safe increase in schooling when, in the SW and NW, the R and later outbreak stage may not.

Of equal importance, is the Somerset-specific capability of the contact tracing system (and the underpinning testing capabilities). If that isn’t functioning effectively then a key component of risk mitigation means that local outbreaks cannot be quickly identified and schools local to the outbreak cannot take additional precautions or close for a 14-day quarantine period.

Director of Children’s Services Julian Wooster on Friday said “We are keeping a very watchful eye on all the data. This new transmission rate figure is just one part of the picture here in Somerset but an important one and none of us can afford to relax and ignore the guidelines.”

We want to support Julian’s precautionary principled approach to relaxing the lockdown further. Is SCC at key Trade Union meetings sharing all of the data Julian refers to? The NEU and other Trade Unions feel that the planned significant increase in school attendance planned for during the course of this term should be accompanied by a full Somerset-specific outbreak risk assessment conducted by you as the SCC PH Director.

That timely Somerset-specific risk assessment could be a constructive part of reassuring parents, schools, all schools’ staff and councillors that the phased return plans in Somerset are underpinned by science and data.

We would like a virtual meeting to be convened one week before that return please with Somerset-specific outbreak and local contact tracing information available and for you to attend that virtual meeting in support of your Somerset risk assessment.

Yours sincerely,

Robin Head, Joint District Secretary, Somerset NEU and Executive member SW

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