UK government announces end of classroom bubbles in England

Education secretary says system is causing disruption to children; teachers’ unions criticise move

Boris Johnson’s government has announced the end of classroom bubbles in England after a surge in the number of children off school due to self-isolation from coronavirus.

The Department for Education said 8.5 per cent of state school pupils in England missed school for coronavirus-related reasons on July 1st, including approximately 561,000 children self-isolating due to a possible contact with an infected person.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson told MPs that from August 16th, pupils will not have to self-isolate if they are a close contact of someone who tests positive. "We recognise that the system of bubbles and isolation is causing disruption to many children's education," he said.

"That is why we'll be ending bubbles and transferring contact tracing to the NHS test and trace system for early years settings, schools and colleges."


Teachers' unions criticised the decision, which follows a near doubling of cases among schoolchildren in the last week. Kevin Courtney, joint secretary general of the National Education Union, accused the government of pursuing a strategy of herd immunity.

“It seems clear that the government policies are based on a new form of herd immunity strategy – they are hoping that the increase in vaccination rates and the increase in infection rates across the summer will eventually get cases to fall simply because there is no one left to infect,” he said.

Britain recorded 28,773 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday, the highest daily number since the end of January, and 37 new deaths. Downing Street has denied that herd immunity is a government policy but health secretary Sajid Javid acknowledged that the lifting of almost all legal coronavirus restrictions on July 19th could push daily infections above 100,000 a day.

“I understand that some people are cautious about their idea of easing restrictions, but we must balance the risks – the risks of a virus that has diminished but not [been] defeated, against the risks of keeping these restrictions and the health, social and economic hardship that we know they bring,” he told MPs.

‘More long Covid’

“This pandemic is far from over and we will continue to proceed with caution. But we’re increasingly confident that our plan is working and that we can soon begin a new chapter based on the foundations of personal responsibility and common sense rather than the blunt instrument of rules and regulations.”

Labour's shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said the government's decision to lift the legal requirement for people to wear face masks left people who were immunocompromised feeling vulnerable.

"Now [Mr Javid] has justified allowing infections to climb by pointing to the weakened link between hospitalisations and deaths and that we are building a protective wall. But of course, the wall is only half-built and we know from outbreaks in Israel and research that the Delta variant can be transmitted through fully vaccinated people even if they don't get it," he said.

Chief medical officer Chris Whitty has defended the lifting of restrictions but he warned that the vaccine rollout must continue at great speed to prevent a major increase in "long Covid" as case numbers rise.

“Since there’s a lot of Covid at the moment, and the rates are going up I regret to say, I think we will get a significant amount more long Covid, particularly in the younger ages where the vaccination rates are currently much lower. Fundamentally the two ways to prevent long Covid in my view are to keep Covid rates right down and make sure everyone is vaccinated so they get very mild disease and I think we really just need to push hell for leather for those two,” he told the Local Government Association.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is London Editor of The Irish Times