Ministers are facing fresh pressure to help schools in England limit the spread of coronavirus when they fully reopen in September after rejecting a call for teachers and pupils to undergo routine testing.
Nick Gibb, the schools minister, said the government would not go along with a demand from the children’s commissioner for England to bring in routine coronavirus testing, and would test only those who showed symptoms.
Scotland, where schools are starting to reopen from Tuesday, plans to bring in an enhanced Covid-19 testing and surveillance regime, though it will not be ready in time for the start of term.
Schools and ministers are scrambling to make classrooms as safe as possible in the four weeks before they are due to fully reopen to all pupils, something Boris Johnson said on Sunday was a “moral duty”.
With the government’s medical advisers warning that the return of schools could mean other areas of society need to be closed down again to avoid another uncontrolled spread of Covid-19, ministers are also being urged to get the test-and-trace system fully operational.
Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner, said she had been “dismayed” by the way English schools stayed closed to most pupils before the summer break while businesses like theme parks reopened, saying test and trace must improve. “It has to be fit for purpose, and government has to make this happen,” she told Times Radio.
Longfield said regular testing in schools should be a part of measures to keep schools safe. “I’m not an expert in testing, but I would say that regular means weekly,” she said. “It needs to be as regular as it needs to be to ensure the infection is caught and identified as soon as possible, and then the tracking system can move on from that.”
But Gibb confirmed that teachers and pupils in England would not have access to routine testing, and would instead be reliant primarily on hygiene and distancing measures to control any spread of the virus.
Saying that schools would definitely open “to the extent you can guarantee anything in the midst of this very serious pandemic”, Gibb said tests would be only for those thought to be ill.
“Anybody that shows symptoms in schools, teachers and pupils, will be tested,” Gibb said. “Not routine testing without symptoms. The advice that we have is that it’s better to test when people actually show symptoms.”
New swab tests to confirm within 90 minutes if someone has Covid-19, as well as testing for flu, will be rolled out in the coming week, but Gibb confirmed that these would not yet be used in schools.
Instead, he said, schools would seek to control the virus through increased hand-washing and splitting pupils into distinct groups.
“The priority for the new 90-minute tests has to be the hospitals, the care homes and the laboratories,” Gibb said. “But all the advice we have had is that the measures we are putting in place, the sort of hierarchy of controls about hygiene and so on, and bubbles within schools, is the most effective method of reducing the risk of transmission of the virus.”
Writing in the Mail on Sunday, Johnson said it was the “national priority” to get all English pupils back into classrooms in September.
“This pandemic isn’t over, and the last thing any of us can afford to do is become complacent,” the prime minister wrote. “But now that we know enough to reopen schools to all pupils safely, we have a moral duty to do so.”
Kate Green, Labour’s shadow education secretary, also speaking on Times Radio, said it was “essential” that all English schools reopen in September, and that the government should provide extra resources for areas like cleaning and the costs of staggering school opening times.
She also stressed the need for effective tracing of Covid-19 cases: “Without robust testing and tracing in place, schools can’t do all this on their own, and that is a really crucial element. The government has a window between now and the end of September to get that right. And it absolutely must do so.”
If, as expected, there is an increase in coronavirus cases in autumn and winter, ministers are likely to have to decide whether to restrict access to schools or potentially risk even more unemployment by closing parts of the economy.
Longfield said she was “pleased that the government is now putting schools as a number one priority”. She added: “I was dismayed when the government prioritised opening shops, theme parks and even zoos rather than schools,” she said. “I don’t want to close any of those, but there may need to be choices.”