Last reviewed 7 March 2022

What can schools and early years providers do to keep their pupils and children safe? Martin Hodgson provides comprehensive coverage of all the appropriate guidance on Covid-19.

This information is being continually checked and updated.

What is coronavirus?

The World Health Organization defines coronaviruses as a family of viruses that cause infectious illness ranging from very mild, like the common cold, to very severe diseases, such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). The SARS-CoV-2 virus is the new coronavirus responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic. It originated in China at the end of 2019 and has spread worldwide.

How does coronavirus spread?

People can catch Covid-19 from others who are infected.

It is understood that the virus moves from person to person in droplets from the nose or mouth which are spread when a person with Covid-19 coughs or exhales. In addition, the virus can survive for up to 72 hours out of the body on surfaces. People can become infected if they breathe in the droplets or touch infected surfaces and then touch their eyes, nose or mouth.

The incubation period of Covid-19 is between 2 to 10 days.

What are the symptoms?

The NHS recognise the main symptoms of coronavirus as:

  • fever and high temperature — people will feel “hot to touch” on their chest or back (37.8 degrees Celsius or above)

  • new, continuous dry cough — the NHS define this as coughing a lot for more than an hour, or 3 or more coughing episodes in 24 hours (someone with an existing cough may find that it is worse than usual)

  • loss or change to the sense of smell or taste — the NHS defines this as someone noticing that they cannot smell or taste anything, or things smell or taste different to normal.

Most people with coronavirus have at least one of these symptoms. Other less common symptoms include aches and pains, nasal congestion, headache, conjunctivitis, sore throat, diarrhoea, or a skin rash or discoloration of fingers or toes. The latest Omicron variant of Covid-19, which became the dominant strain in the UK at the end of 2021, may produce more cold or flu like symptoms.

Symptoms begin gradually and are usually mild. Most people (about 80%) recover from the disease without needing special treatment. A small percentage can become seriously ill and develop difficulty breathing. This is particularly dangerous for people with weakened immune systems, for older people, and for those with long-term conditions such as diabetes, cancer and chronic lung disease.

Some infected individuals may show no symptoms but are still able to pass on the virus, especially in the early stages of infection. This is described as asymptomatic spread.

Children and young people can become ill with coronavirus. However, they seem in general to be less susceptible to the virus and even when infected most do not tend to develop serious illness. As with adults, pre-existing medical conditions are a key risk factor.

National alert levels

The need for Covid-19 restrictions is based on the following national alert level system introduced by the Government in May 2020.

  • Level five (red) signifies a “material risk of healthcare services being overwhelmed” and requires extremely strict social distancing.

  • Level four signifies “a high or rising level of transmission” and requires enforced social distancing.

  • Level three (amber) describes the virus as being “in general circulation” but no longer high or rising exponentially — as a result, social distancing can be relaxed.

  • Level two describes the number of cases and transmission as being low — minimal social distancing is required.

  • Level one (green) will describe a situation where Covid-19 is no longer present in the UK and social distancing will no longer be required.

Estimating the alert level involves calculation of an “R” value by public health experts. This value reflects the average number of people that a single person might infect on a daily basis.

The R value is typically expressed as a range. Therefore an R number between 1.1 and 1.3 means that on average every 10 people infected will infect between 11 and 13 other people. A growth rate between +2% and +4% means the number of new infections is growing by 2% to 4% every day.

The Government has stated that it wishes to keep the R value as close to 1 as possible. This means that the virus is not spreading and has been effectively suppressed.

Covid-19 public health restrictions

The government response throughout the Covid-19 pandemic has been to take necessary public health action to limit transmission of the virus by imposing a series of restrictions whenever the R number has grown too high and the alert level has had to be raised. These restrictions have included:

  • widespread testing for Covid infection

  • requirements for people to “self-isolate” if they have symptoms or test positive

  • regional and national lockdowns requiring people to stay at home, including working from home wherever possible

  • periodic closures of places where people mix or gather, including schools, pubs, restaurants, etc

  • people observing “social distancing” and keeping at least 2 metres away from others not in the same household

  • requirements to wear face masks in certain places, such as shops and on public transport

  • contact tracing and Covid status certificates

  • “shielding” for the most vulnerable members of society.

The first lockdown was imposed in March 2020 following the initial “first wave” of infection. After a brief summer respite, a “second wave” of infection swept through the UK at the end of the year as people moved indoors in colder weather and new, more infectious Covid-19 variant strains emerged. NHS winter pressures exacerbated the situation and another national lockdown was announced from January 2021, following a dramatic increase in infection rates, hospitalisations and deaths. The lockdown was considered necessary despite the hopeful sign of vaccines becoming available and being rolled out across the country.

Another wave of infection, driven by another Covid variant, Omicron, occurred at the end of 2021. However, with the success of its Covid-19 vaccination programme, including an autumn booster campaign, further restrictions introduced over the winter were lifted in January 2022.

With the pandemic entering its post-vaccination phase in the UK, and with the majority of the population now protected by vaccines, the Government gradually eased its restrictions and has now lifted its final formal domestic restriction, that of mandatory self-isolation.

Additional changes include:

  • contact tracing will come to an end

  • universal free testing for the public will end from 1 April — most people needing to do tests in England from the start of April will have to pay for tests but some vulnerable groups may still be eligible for free tests

  • Covid status certificates will no longer be needed and people will not be expected to show proof of vaccination

  • from 21 February, the Government has removed the guidance for staff and students in most education and childcare settings to undertake twice weekly asymptomatic testing.

The lifting of restrictions has been accompanied by a new strategy for moving forward into the post-pandemic phase.

Living with Covid

COVID-19 Response: Living with COVID-19 was published by the Government on 21 February 2022. This sets out the Government’s plan for “living with the virus” long-term.

The Government claims that the success of its vaccine campaign has put the UK in a strong position and has conferred significant protection on the population as a whole. However, the document admits that there is considerable uncertainty about the path that the pandemic will now take in the UK. It therefore sets out how the Government intends to ensure resilience and maintain contingencies for a range of possible scenarios while enabling people to be as free as possible to get on with their lives.

The threat of Covid has not yet been downgraded from a pandemic into an endemic. However, the belief is that it will increasingly be possible to respond to the virus in a similar way to other existing respiratory illnesses, such as flu, through sustainable public health measures. The main unknown is the emergence of new variants of the virus which could make existing vaccines less effective, prove resistant to antiviral treatments, or cause more severe disease.

Like other illnesses, the Government expects that:

  • the population’s defences against new variants will continue to strengthen as immunity increases through advances in vaccine technology and repeated exposure to the virus

  • over time, though hard to predict, it is likely that Covid-19 will become a predominantly winter seasonal illness with some years seeing larger levels of infection than others.

Its response through the next stage of the pandemic will be based on four principles:

  • living with Covid-19 — removing domestic restrictions while encouraging safer behaviours through public health advice

  • protecting the most vulnerable — this will largely be accomplished through vaccination boosters and targeted testing

  • maintaining resilience — public health authorities will maintain ongoing surveillance and have contingency plans in place

  • securing innovations and opportunities — investing in research.

Vaccines will underpin the response. Their deployment will continue to be guided by Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) advice. Testing, although it has been a key part of the pandemic response, will be slowly phased down as it becomes less important.

How can people protect themselves?

With formal restrictions now lifted, Government guidance for the general public over the prevention of infection and transmission has been downgraded to advisory recommendations only. However, note that specialist professional guidelines, such as those relating to NHS health care provision, remain in place.

Guidance for England can be found in Living with Covid-19. It can also be found on the GOV.UK web platform, including Coronavirus: how to stay safe and help prevent the spread. The webpage contains links to equivalent guidance for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Despite the end of formal restrictions, the Government warns that Covid-19 remains in circulation and remains a risk. The Government states that everyone can play their part in ensuring safety by understanding the situations where risks of Covid-19 infection and transmission are likely to be higher, and taking action to reduce these risks.

Risks are higher:

  • if people are not vaccinated

  • where there is close contact with an infected person

  • in crowded and enclosed spaces, where there are more people who might be infectious and limited fresh air.

There are a number of what the Government term “safer behaviours” that people can take to reduce risk. People are advised to:

  • protect themselves and others by getting themselves vaccinated — Covid-19 vaccines are safe and highly effective and offer the best way to reduce the risk of becoming ill with Covid-19 and passing it on

  • let fresh air in if meeting indoors — good ventilation is known to reduce the risk of virus transmission, as will meeting outside in the fresh air

  • wear a face covering if they want to in crowded and enclosed spaces, especially where coming into contact with people they do not usually meet when rates of transmission are high

  • stay at home if unwell — people are advised to take a test if they have Covid-19 symptoms and stay at home and avoid contact with other people if they test positive

  • wash their hands and follow the “Catch it, Bin it, Kill it” public health advice.

“Catch it, Bin it, Kill it” is an encouragement for people to practice good respiratory hygiene:

  • wash hands with soap and water or use hand sanitiser regularly throughout the day — regular hand washing is an effective way to reduce the risk of catching a range of illnesses, including Covid-19

  • where possible, avoid touching the eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands

  • cover the mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing — covering coughs and sneezes will not only help reduce the spread of particles carrying Covid-19 it will also block other viruses, including those that cause coughs and colds

  • dispose of used tissues in a hygienic way.

For employers, businesses and service providers, the changes mean that, from 1 April, guidance to businesses will be consolidated in line with public health advice.

What is Covid-19 testing?

Testing is a key area in the management of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Two types of nasal/throat swab tests are available to detect the presence of the virus in the body.

  • Lateral flow device (LFD) tests — a “rapid” nasal/throat swab test carried out at home or “on the spot” designed for those without symptoms to check they are not infected with the virus.

  • Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests — a nasal/throat swab test which is sent away to a laboratory to confirm Covid-19 in symptomatic individuals, with the results usually returned in 24–48 hours.

Testing in the early stages of the pandemic was restricted to those in hospital. However, testing was scaled up to provide mass testing for the whole population where needed, including schools.

Guidance on obtaining and using lateral flow tests or booking PCR tests at a test site can be found on the NHS webpage Testing for coronavirus (COVID-19).

What is self-isolation?

Self-isolation is when people are required to stay at home because they have or might have coronavirus (Covid-19). This helps to prevent them from spreading the virus to other people.

The rules relating to self-isolation have changed several times during the course of the pandemic.

In the latest change, from 24 February 2022, the Government has revoked the legal requirement for people to self-isolate if they have Covid-19 symptoms or following a positive test. The legal requirement has been replaced by recommendations to self-isolate instead. The recommendation can be found in the Government online guidance, COVID-19: people with COVID-19 and their contacts.

Schools should do their best to ensure that pupils, staff and other adults do not come onto school premises if they are advised to self-isolate. The guidance states that:

  • self-isolation usually lasts for 10 days

  • after five days, people may choose to take a Lateral Flow Device (LFD) test, followed by another the next day — if both are negative, and they do not have a temperature, they can safely return to their normal routine.

People who live with or have been in contact with someone with Covid-19 do not need to self-isolate if any of the following apply:

  • they are fully vaccinated (this means 14 days have passed since their final dose of an approved Covid-19 vaccine)

  • they are under 18 years old

  • they are taking part or have taken part in an approved Covid-19 vaccine trial

  • they are not able to get vaccinated for medical reasons.

When required to self-isolate people must stay at home for the required period. They should not go out, not even to exercise or to get food or medicine. They should work from home where possible and should not go to work. They should not have visitors but can have food or medicines delivered, or brought around by friends or relatives.

People are permitted to leave home in an emergency, for instance, in a medical emergency or if they cannot get food or medicine any other way.

The following NHS guidance is available to help support people who are self-isolating:

Anyone who is self-isolating should inform their employer immediately.

Clinically “extremely vulnerable” people

At the start of the pandemic the NHS identified certain people who were considered to be “high risk” from Covid-19 due to pre-existing health conditions, such as those with severe lung conditions or with compromised immune systems. These people were described as “clinically extremely vulnerable” (CEV) and advised to “shield” and take special precautions to protect themselves from the virus.

The shielding scheme was paused as part of lockdown easing and then discontinued in September 2021. Guidance for people previously considered clinically extremely vulnerable from COVID-19 states that, at the very least, clinically extremely vulnerable people should follow the same guidance as everyone else. In addition, the Government suggests that individuals may choose to limit the close contact they have with those they do not usually meet, particularly when Covid-19 disease levels in the general community are high.

People identified as vulnerable are strongly urged to ensure that they are fully vaccination, along with the rest of the population. They were targeted at the start of the vaccination programme early in 2021 and were also among the first to be offered a booster.

Specific guidance for the education sector

The GOV.UK webpage Guidance for schools: coronavirus (COVID-19) contains a collection of official documents from the Department for Education (DfE).

Schools COVID-19 operational guidance is the current official DfE advice for schools in England. It applies to all schools, including primary schools, secondary schools, academies, special schools and sixth forms. DfE states that it expects independent schools to follow the control measures set out in the guidance in the same way as state-funded schools.

Core guidance for early years providers in England can be found on the DfE webpage Actions for early years and childcare providers during the COVID-19 pandemic. This covers early years provision in:

  • maintained schools

  • non-maintained schools

  • independent schools

  • all providers on the Ofsted early years register

  • all providers registered with an early years childminder agency.

Reception year groups will predominantly be covered by the schools guidance.

Risk assessments

During the pandemic every school and early years setting should have already carried out a risk assessment relating to the transmission of the Covid-19 coronavirus. These assessments should be kept updated and reviewed whenever there are significant changes. They should directly address the risks associated with coronavirus so that sensible safety measures can be put in place.

Reviews of risk assessments should include checking that mitigation measures are working as planned. It is particularly important to review risk assessments and carry out health and safety compliance checks before buildings are reopened after a period of closure.

Recommended control measures in schools and early years

DfE recommends that schools and early years settings operate with a number of defined control measures in place.

Measure 1. Ensure good hygiene for everyone

DfE recommends that everyone in school and early years settings should clean their hands regularly with soap and water or hand sanitiser. The “catch it, bin it, kill it” respiratory hygiene approach should be maintained and personal protective equipment (PPE) effective against infection should be used in compliance with guidance, such as Use of PPE in education, childcare and children’s social care. This covers PPE to be used when dealing with a symptomatic child, for instance.

Schools and early years should make sure enough washing facilities, tissues and bins are available to support their hygiene policies and procedures. Additional support should be provided to younger children and to those with complex needs.

The guidance states that most staff in schools and early years settings will not require personal protective equipment (PPE) beyond what they would normally need for their work.

Measure 2. Maintain appropriate cleaning regimes

Schools and early years should have in place appropriate cleaning schedules and arrangements. Schedules should include regular cleaning of areas and equipment (for example, twice per day), with a particular focus on frequently touched surfaces. When cleaning, standard products such as detergents and bleach should be used. These are known to be effective in removing the Covid-19 virus on surfaces.

Further information is provided in COVID-19: cleaning of non-healthcare settings outside the home.

Schedules should include the more frequent cleaning of toilets and handwashing areas.

Measure 3. Keep occupied spaces well ventilated

Ventilation is a key factor in reducing the risk of virus transmission in indoor areas. Schools and early years providers are advised to ensure that occupied spaces are well ventilated and that a comfortable indoors environment is maintained wherever possible. Poorly ventilated spaces should be identified as part of the Covid risk assessment and steps taken to improve fresh air flow. DfE suggests that windows should be opened and, where mechanical ventilation systems exist, schools and early years settings should ensure that they are maintained and operated in accordance with the manufacturers’ recommendations.

Schools and early years providers are advised to refer to Health & Safety Executive guidance, Ventilation and air conditioning during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Measure 4. Follow public health advice on testing, self-isolation and managing confirmed cases

DfE states that pupils, staff and other adults in a school and everyone involved in early years should follow the standard public health advice on when to self-isolate and how to do it. They should not come into school or attend an early years setting if they have Covid-19 symptoms, have had a positive test result or for any other reasons requiring them to stay at home due to the risk of them passing on the virus (for example, they are required to quarantine).

NHS Test and Trace will work with the positive case and/or their parent to identify close contacts. However, contacts from a school setting will only be traced in the small number of cases where the positive case and/or their parent specifically identifies the individual as being a close contact. 

If anyone in a school or early years setting develops Covid-19 symptoms, however mild, they should be sent home and told to follow public health advice. Any pupil or child with symptoms should avoid using public transport and, wherever possible, be collected by a member of their family or household.

If a pupil or child is awaiting collection, DfE advises that they are moved to a separate room or area. Staff should wear appropriate PPE used if close contact is necessary. A window should be opened for fresh air ventilation if possible and any rooms used should be cleaned after they have left. An older pupil in a school may be left in a room on their own if safe to do so.

The use of personal protective equipment (PPE) in education, childcare and children’s social care settings, including for aerosol generating procedures (AGPs) provides a range of guidance for dealing with pupils or adults with suspected infections on-site, including the personal protective equipment that staff should wear.

Covid-19 testing arrangements in educational settings

Testing remains important in reducing the risk of transmission of infection within schools. However, the Living with COVID-19 strategy states that, as immunity levels are high, testing will play a less important role in preventing serious illness, along with isolation.

Asymptomatic testing refers to tests used to identify individuals who are infected with the Covid-19 virus but who do not display symptoms. Such individuals are capable of passing on the virus despite not being ill themselves. DfE states that staff and secondary school pupils should use lateral flow device (LFD) test kits to test themselves twice weekly at home, three to four days apart. This is a voluntary requirement but is strongly encouraged.

During the pandemic schools have been asked to carry out extensive asymptomatic testing. However, from 21 February 2022, staff and pupils in mainstream schools, and staff in primary schools and early years, will no longer be expected to continue taking part in regular asymptomatic testing. Instead, they are advised to follow asymptomatic testing advice for the general population.

In the event of an outbreak, a school or early years setting may be advised by their local health team or Director of Public Health (DPH) to increase testing for a limited period of time.

From the start of April 2022 the Government will no longer provide free universal symptomatic and asymptomatic testing for the general public in England.

Contingency planning

Schools and early years settings are advised to have suitable contingency plans in place in case of local outbreaks or increases in Covid-19 virus transmission. They are advised to work closely with health protection teams and to be prepared by having what the guidance calls “stepping up and stepping down” measures in place.

Contingency framework: education and childcare settings is published by DfE to provide guidance.

School attendance

Schools COVID-19 operational guidance states that schools are safe for pupils to attend and all pupils of compulsory school age should attend.

Where a child is required to self-isolate or quarantine because of Covid-19 in accordance with relevant legislation or guidance, the guidance states that they should be recorded as code X (not attending in circumstances related to coronavirus). Where they are unable to attend because they have a confirmed case of Covid-19 they should be recorded as code I (illness).

The guidance states that all clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) children and young people should also attend their education setting unless they are one of the very small number of children and young people under paediatric or other specialist care who have been advised by their clinician or other specialist not to attend.

Face masks in schools and early years

Face coverings help protect the wearer and others against the spread of infection because they cover the nose and mouth.

In earlier stages of the pandemic there has been a requirement for mandatory mask and face-covering wearing. This has included requirements for wearing face coverings in schools, especially in areas such as corridors where people are circulating around buildings. It was also a requirement on public transport.

These restrictions have all now been relaxed although the Government still recommends considering wearing a face covering in crowded and enclosed spaces when rates of transmission are high, especially when in contact with people not usually met.

Guidance on face coverings can be found in Coronavirus: how to stay safe and help prevent the spread.

Further information is available in the Government guidance Face coverings: when to wear one, exemptions, and how to make your own.

School meals

Schools COVID-19 operational guidance states that schools should continue to provide free school meal support to any pupils who are eligible for benefits-related free school meals and who are learning at home during term time. This will include pupils who are self-isolating.

During lockdown periods schools have had to utilise different systems to ensure that such pupils have had access to meals. The DfE guidance Providing school meals during the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak contains further advice and information.

Support for home learning

Schools should do all they can to support home learning when pupils cannot attend due to the coronavirus pandemic (ie, when self-isolating) or for health reasons. While staying at home due to coronavirus, parents and carers may be worried about their children's development and the effect of missing school or nursery.

Schools coronavirus (COVID-19) operational guidance states that schools should maintain their capacity to deliver “high-quality remote education” right across the academic year. This includes provision for pupils who are abroad and face challenges to return to the UK due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.

DfE specifies that any remote education provided should be “equivalent in length” to the core teaching pupils would receive in school.

In early years settings, Actions for early years and childcare providers during the COVID-19 pandemic states that providers should try to stay in touch with parents or carers whose child is forced to remain at home for an extended period due to the virus. Providers should consider how best to support such children, especially if there may be welfare or safeguarding issues involved.

Vulnerable children

Early years services and schools have been required throughout the pandemic to ensure that they prioritise the needs of children defined as “vulnerable” by the DfE. Many of these children and young people will be classified as having special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) or have education, health and care plans (EHC plans) and may need additional support during all stages of the pandemic.

The full list of children that may require additional support can be found in the DfE document Children of critical workers and vulnerable children who can access schools or educational settings.

The guidance states that, in all circumstances and in all settings, priority should continue to be given to vulnerable children and young people to attend full time. Those that need to remain at home (for instance, due to self-isolation or for health reasons) may need help to successfully access remote education. Support should be provided according to individual needs and personalised educational healthcare plans.

Catch-up learning for schools

A number of catch-up programmes have been developed and funded, including the Catch-up Premium scheme, to help pupils who may need recovery support following missed schooling, for instance. A list of resources is included in the DfE publication Education recovery.

Workforce considerations

As with all sections of society, Covid-19 has placed huge pressures on the education and early years workforce who have worked hard to keep their essential services open throughout the pandemic. In particular, high sickness and absence rates due to illness and self-isolation have led to significant staff issues.

Schools coronavirus (COVID-19) operational guidance places responsibility onto school leaders to determine their own local workforce needs for each school.

Individual employers in all sectors must decide on the safety measures and welfare arrangements that are appropriate to take for their workplace and should refer to Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance on how to reduce any residual risk and keep their staff safe.

HSE guidance includes the following webpages:

Particular attention should be paid to staff who may require adjustments and additional support, for instance, those with health conditions or with emotional needs.

Pregnant staff should follow the guidance set out in Coronavirus (COVID-19): advice for pregnant employees. Workplace risk assessments covering pregnant staff should be updated in line with current health and safety law. Any risks identified should be effectively managed in consultation with the member of staff concerned. This may include risk mitigation measures such as working from home.

Behaviour, discipline and wellbeing

The DfE guidance warns that some school pupils may be experiencing a variety of emotions in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, such as anxiety, stress or low mood. 

In addition, to anxiety and stress, some children may also have experienced bereavement, particularly the loss of family, and in some cases, increased welfare and safeguarding harms.

Extra pastoral support should be provided for pupils in schools where wellbeing or safeguarding concerns are identified. Additionally, provision for pupils who have SEND may have been disrupted during the period of restrictions on attendance and there may be an impact on their behaviour too.

Support should be provided by school nurses, where they are in place, to ensure that healthcare needs are met.

School trips

School trips and education visits of all types have been banned in England during Covid-19 lockdown periods. All restrictions have now been lifted.

DfE guidance states that schools must undertake full and thorough risk assessments in relation to all educational visits and ensure that any public health advice, such as hygiene and ventilation requirements, is included as part of that risk assessment. General guidance about educational visits is available and is supported by specialist advice, such as that from the Outdoor Education Advisory Panel (OEAP).

Foreign travel must be meticulously planned and take into account the latest international Covid-19 restrictions and travel advice. Up to date advice on foreign travel is available from the Department of Transport webpage Travel abroad from England during coronavirus (COVID-19).

School inspections

Formal school inspections were cancelled by Ofsted at the start of the pandemic. A programme of “support visits” was reintroduced when schools reopened, targeted at schools most in need of support.

The DfE guidance states that, for state-funded schools, Ofsted has resumed its programme of routine inspections and will aim to inspect every state-funded school within the next five academic years. Within the five-year period, Ofsted will continue to prioritise schools most in need of inspection.

For independent schools (other than academies), both Ofsted and the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) have resumed their programme of routine inspections and they will complete the current cycle of standard inspections — which was delayed by the pandemic — in 2022.

Vaccine development and roll out

Worldwide, a range of vaccines have been developed which have proved to be both safe and effective in producing an immune response to the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic. Vaccines approved for use in the UK by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), such as the Pfizer vaccine and the Moderna vaccine, have been deployed through a national rollout-programme.

Following guidance from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), the rollout of the vaccines begun at the end of 2020, with initial priority given to the most vulnerable groups and to care workers. Throughout 2021 the vast majority of adults were offered their jabs in a huge national vaccination programme. During the summer, 16 to 17-year-olds were added to the programme and can get first and second doses of a vaccine. Twelve to 15-year-olds were added to the schedule in the autumn.

For adults the “primary course” of each vaccine is administered as two injections some weeks apart. In the autumn of 2021 a booster “third jab” was introduced to give additional protection to people from the Omicron variant of the virus and through the winter.

More information on the current vaccination programme can be found on the NHS Coronavirus (COVID-19) Vaccines webpage. This includes links to book or manage a vaccination appointment.

As of 16 February the vaccine campaign has resulted in:

  • 91% of the UK population over 12 having had their first dose

  • 85% of the UK population over 12 having had their second dose

  • 66% of the UK population over 12 having had a booster dose.

Vaccination remains a key element in the pandemic response.

The Living with Covid-19 strategy states that the Government is working to increase vaccination rates still further, especially in communities where take-up is lower. This includes a £22.5 million Community Vaccine Champions Scheme to support 60 local authorities with the lowest vaccination uptake.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has released a press statement in which they have recommended an additional six-monthly booster dose for the most vulnerable individuals in the population to be given in the spring of 2023. This would be given to:

  • adults aged 75 years and over, residents in a care home for older adults

  • individuals aged 12 years and over who are immunosuppressed, as defined in in the Covid 19 healthcare guidance Green Book.

The JCVI predicts that, despite uncertainties around how the pandemic will develop through 2022, the winter of 2022–23 is likely to remain the season when the threat from Covid-19 is greatest, both for individuals and the NHS and care homes. It has therefore recommended that the Government plan for a wider booster campaign in the autumn of 2022.

Schools and early years employers should do all they can to support and encourage all of their staff to access the vaccination programme when offered and if eligible. This will provide them with their best protection against Covid-19, protecting them both against infection and from the severity of symptoms if they become ill. Those that have concerns about vaccination should be encouraged to discuss their issues with their GP.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine for children aged 12 to 15 provides further information on vaccination for children. The guidance states that:

  • most children will be offered a first and second “primary dose” of a Covid-19 vaccine at school during school hours

  • second doses will be offered in schools from January 2022 — children who have not yet had a vaccine can get their first dose during these vaccination sessions

  • school immunisation teams will visit schools to give the vaccine

  • parents or guardians will get a letter or email with information about when the vaccine will be offered and will be asked to give consent

  • if a child misses their Covid-19 vaccination, for any reason, they will be offered it again at a later date.

Children can also get a first dose of a Covid-19 at a walk-in vaccination site from the day they turn 12.

The UK vaccination programme is entirely voluntary, except for professions such as health and social care where mandatory requirements are in place or being introduced. The WHO takes the position that persuading people on the merits of a Covid-19 vaccine is far more effective than trying to make the jabs mandatory.

Vaccination programmes are being rolled out around the world in the face of opposition from “anti-vaxxer” groups and social media misinformation which have increased fears and made some people hesitant and worried that a vaccine can be safe in the current pandemic. That said, the vaccine programme in the UK has proved very popular and in most areas uptake has been extremely high. Areas where compliance is low have been targeted with additional public health resources to ensure that local communities have sufficient factual information about the benefits of vaccination.

Where can the latest information be found?

School leaders and early years managers should keep as up to date as possible and ensure that staff and parents are informed.

The following official sources can be used:

People are warned to avoid misinformation and out of date information. Guidance has changed rapidly throughout the outbreak. It may also vary according to where in the UK people live. Always refer to the latest official Government information.