Volunteers and agency staff will administer Covid-19 tests in schools in England and teachers will not be in charge of testing their students, the schools minister Nick Gibb has said.
Defending the government’s decision to delay the return of most secondary school students by a week at the start of next term, Gibb insisted the move was a “good news story”, as it would enable mass testing to be carried out in schools.
Headteachers and union leaders have accused the government of putting an unacceptable strain on teachers and school resources after it announced on Tuesday that secondary school staff would be tested every week.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Gibb made no apology for the fact that the decision had been made just before the last day of term, saying the country was in the grip of “a fast moving pandemic” so action had to be taken “at pace”.
The country had recorded a 28% increase in infections in the last week, and a 14% rise in hospital admissions, he said, adding that the new schools testing system system would ensure that any close contacts of someone who had tested positive would be tested every day for seven days to limit the need for mass self-isolation.
“This is all about education being a national priority, about having more people in the classroom,” he said. “Rather than self-isolating every time there’s a positive case in a school, on average about 24 pupils have to … self-isolate, [so this testing regime is ] to avoid that.”
Challenged on why the government had threatened legal action against schools in areas of rapidly increasing infections in London to prevent them closing a few days early in advance of Christmas, only to order all secondary schools to close for a week after Christmas, Gibb said the government-ordered closure was for a “specific reason”.
He said getting 11bn testing kits to schools would be a “massive logistical exercise” and “detailed operational details” would be published next week.
“It is very important that we’re testing five and a half million students twice, three days apart, to make sure that we are breaking the transmission of the virus, “ he said.
“After the increased mixing over the Christmas holidays it is all about making sure we have more young people in the classroom in the spring and summer terms as we go forward. This is an amazing initiative to get these tests into schools. It is the way we tackle this virus.”
The armed forces would plan the testing rollout, while volunteers and government-funded agency staff would carry out the testing, he added.
Asked if teachers would have any role in testing, Gibb told Sky News: “No – teachers are already fully occupied. They already have their hands full.”
Asked by the Today programme if schools would be expected to recruit volunteers, Gibb said it would be a “national effort” and many volunteers were already involved in schools. They would not require a DBS check because they would be supervised, he said.
On BBC Breakfast, Gibb did not rule out the possibility of a national lockdown after Christmas, but said the government wanted to continue with the tier system.
“We think the tier system is a very effective way, of course, [but] you know, we rule nothing out. This government is absolutely determined to tackle this virus,” he said.