Nick Gibb tells LBC that twice weekly Covid testing in schools isn't compulsory

25 February 2021, 09:05 | Updated: 25 February 2021, 10:51

By Megan White

Minister for School Standards Nick Gibb has told LBC that twice weekly Covid testing in schools is not compulsory for students.

All secondary school and college students will take three tests as they return to the classroom from March 8 at school testing facilities.

After that, students and staff will be provided with 2 rapid tests to use each week at home.

Read more: Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to lay out exam grade plan after 2020 chaos

Speaking to LBC's Nick Ferrari, the minister said that although the Government "highly recommends" that students participate in testing, it is "not compulsory."

He said: "We highly recommend it. It's a way of identifying people who have the virus but don't show symptoms and it's a way of protecting other students and teachers within the school and we hope that every student will get tested."

Asked whether it should be "no test, no school", Mr Gibb said: "No, we want to make sure it's not compulsory in that sense, and they will need the permission of the parent.

Mr Gibb added: "In all these things, it's a balance of risk and just having anybody tested and identifying asymptomatic cases is a bonus in terms of minimising risk.

"But we do accept and we hope that most students, the vast majority of students, will volunteer to have these tests twice a week, and then after the third test, there'll be home testing kits for those students.

"It's a way of protecting one another from the transmission of the virus in a school environment."

Secondary school and college leaders will be given some flexibility to stagger the return of students to ensure pupils are tested before returning to class.

Students and staff are being advised to wear face coverings in all areas, including classrooms, where social distancing cannot be maintained until Easter under strengthened protective measures.

It comes as a document from the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M) - a sub-group of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) - said that the opening of primary and secondary schools is "likely to increase effective R by a factor of 1.1 to 1.5 (10% to 50%)".

Primary school children will not need to take a rapid coronavirus test, but primary school staff will continue to take two rapid tests each week at home.

A headteachers' union has said the return of secondary school and college pupils may need to be staggered "over a minimum of two weeks" due to the "huge logistical challenge" of mass testing.

Announcing the plans to reopen schools and colleges to all pupils from March 8, Boris Johnson told MPs: "All the evidence shows that classrooms are the best places for our young people to be and that's why I've always said that schools would be the last to close and the first to reopen.

"And based on our assessment of the current data against the four tests, I can tell the House that two weeks from today, pupils and students in all schools and further education settings can safely return to face-to-face teaching, supported by twice weekly testing of secondary school and college pupils."

He added that breakfast and after-school clubs will also be able to reopen - and other children's activities, including sport, can restart "where necessary to help parents to work".

The decision comes despite calls from education unions to adopt a "phased return" of students - similar to in Wales and Scotland where schools began reopening to the youngest pupils on Monday.

Mr Johnson called on Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer to "persuade some of his friends in the unions" to say that "schools are safe".

Following the announcement, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: "Of immediate concern is the huge logistical challenge facing secondary schools and colleges of having to manage the mass testing of pupils for coronavirus.

"This requires setting up testing stations on site and having significant numbers of staff to operate them.

"This may mean that the return of pupils has to be staggered over a minimum of two weeks, and we expect the Government to show a spirit of understanding."

He added that he was concerned that the full return on March 8 may "lead to more disruption".

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, questioned why the Government had not taken the same "phased approach" as Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

She warned: "A 'big bang' school reopening brings 10 million people back into crowded buildings with no social distancing and inadequate ventilation.

"The wearing of face masks by pupils and staff in secondary school lessons is a welcome measure but it is not, on its own enough."

All staff at private, voluntary and independent nurseries will also have access to rapid tests to use twice weekly at home.

An SPI-M document, published on Monday, suggests scientists are at odds with the Government on the timing of schools going back.

SPI-M says: "A phased reopening would allow the effects to be assessed which would be particularly valuable if schools were one of the first things to reopen, as there will be more uncertainties in the early stages of releasing measures (e.g. around the impact of vaccines)."

Professor Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College London and a senior scientific adviser, said reopening schools could increase the number of Covid-19 cases and potentially push the R rate above 1.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: "The testing of staff and students ahead of their return to secondary schools and colleges, alongside strengthened safety measures, should reassure families and education staff that extra measures are in place alongside the existing bubble system, enhanced hygiene and Covid-secure precautions.

"We are all well aware that being back in school or college brings huge benefits to young people's education, development and wellbeing.

"The classroom is the very best place for education and the return of face-to-face teaching for all pupils will be a welcome move for pupils and parents across the country."

In Scotland, children between the ages of four and eight in primaries one to three began returning to school from Monday, along with some senior secondary pupils who need to do practical work.

Children aged between three and seven also started a phased return to school in Wales on Monday, and some vocational learners were back at college for their practical qualifications.

All primary school pupils, as well as older age groups in Years 11 and 13 who have exams, could return from March 15 if Wales's public health situation continues to improve.

Some primary school pupils in Northern Ireland will return to class on March 8, while secondary pupils in key exam years will return to school on March 22.