Ministers are facing fresh pressure to help schools in England limit the spread of coronavirus when they reopen fully 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 only test those who showed symptoms.
Schools and ministers are scrambling to make classrooms as safe as possible in the four weeks before they are due to reopen fully to all pupils, something Boris Johnson said on Sunday was a moral duty.
The government’s medical advisers have warned 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, and 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 such as 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.
She 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.”
Gibb, however, said: “Anybody that shows symptoms in schools, teachers and pupils, will be tested … Not routine testing without symptoms. The advice that we have is that it’s better to test when people actually show symptoms.”
He said schools would definitely open “to the extent you can guarantee anything in the midst of this very serious pandemic”, but that teachers and pupils in England would be reliant primarily on hygiene and distancing measures to control the virus.
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 said these would not yet be used in schools.
“The priority for the new 90-minute tests has to be the hospitals, the care homes and the laboratories,” he 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, the prime minister 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, the 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 in areas such as cleaning and the costs of staggering school opening times.
She also stressed the need for the 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,” she said. “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”. “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.”