I propose to take Questions Nos. 203 and 204 together.
To support the return to college in 2020, on July 22nd my Department published its three-pillar series of guides for returning to on-site learning in 2021, which consisted of a high-level roadmap, a COVID-19 adaptation framework, and practical guidance for returning to on-site activity. This unique three-pillar approach was developed in close consultation with agencies, stakeholders, provider representative bodies and social partners.
These guides have since been supplemented by Implementation Guidelines developed by experts within the higher education sector, and endorsed by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, published on August 5th. These guidelines can be further updated and modified as the public health situation evolves.
Both our own guidance for returning to on-site activity and the Implementation Guidelines state that social distancing of 2 metres should be maintained where possible.. However it is recognised that there will be circumstances under which tuition cannot realistically be delivered while maintaining 2m distance between students, and the Implementation Guidelines include provisions for reduced social distancing in certain situations with clearly specified mitigation measures such as the wearing of face coverings to minimise the risk of viral transmission. The full range of recommended mitigation measures are clearly outlined in the Implementation Guidelines and all of the measures are directed at ensuring the safety of staff and students. The overarching priority of all involved is to safeguard public health in the return to on-campus learning.
It is not intended for my Department to review or approve specific measures put in place by individual institutions. The diversity and flexibility of the Higher Education sector has been key in driving responsive and adaptable approaches to the challenges created by the pandemic. The guidance that has been provided is designed to allow HEIs to leverage that flexibility to adapt to a evolving situation, and change their approach in accordance with the latest health advice.