Private school buys £35k coronavirus test machine as state schools struggle

20 September 2020, 17:11

Independent schools have been purchasing Covid-19 testing equipment
Independent schools have been purchasing Covid-19 testing equipment. Picture: Getty

By Joe Cook

A private boarding school in Kent has purchased a £35,000 coronavirus testing machine while shortages in the public sector mean thousands of school children are missing out on in-person testing.

Benenden, an all girls boarding school attended by Princess Anne, have installed a SAMBA II device, which is also being used in hospitals and gives results in 90 minutes.

Headmistress Samantha Price said: “Being able to get the results within 90 minutes will greatly reduce the disruption to the school community, particularly during the flu season when girls are likely to be displaying symptoms that could be attributed to flu or Covid.”

While the school announced they will also be offering tests to two nearby state schools, the purchase highlights the inequality in access to tests that is growing between children at private and state schools.

Eton has also provided private tests for all of their students.

In a statement, the school said: “In deciding to test, Eton has been determined not to put additional pressure on the NHS.

"Therefore, a contract has been taken out with a private provider and the school is covering all costs.”

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Meanwhile, amidst shortages of NHS tests, many students at state schools are being forced to self-isolate as harmless coughs and colds result in Covid-like symptoms.

Without negative Covid-19 tests, these students are often unable to return to school, meaning many are missing out on class time.

Over 350 schools in England and Wales were forced to close completely or to send children home last week following positive tests.

Jules White, headteacher and founder of the school-funding campaign Worth Less?, told The Guardian that inequalities already present in the UK education system are being exacerbated by the pandemic.

“While fee-paying schools enjoy the luxury of private testing to keep their staff and students safe and their schools functioning effectively, the rest of us are being let down by a wholly inadequate test-trace system that is depriving children of the best opportunity to catch up on lost learning and ensuring that teachers and support staff up and down the country are put under yet more pressure.”

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Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green told LBC’s Swarbrick on Sunday that Labour are calling on the government to ensure “every parent is able to get a test for their child if they display symptoms, within 24 hours and to get the result back in a further 24 hours”.

“Of course we knew children were coming back to school in September so it is very disappointing that the government didn't put all of that in place for the start of term,” Ms Green said.

She added: “Children need priority for tests so that they can be brought back to school quickly if they test negative.

“I'm really worried that what we are already beginning to see just two or three weeks into term, is whole year groups being sent home because one child tests positive, then they can't come back because they can't get tests.

"Then after 14 days when they do come back, of course the whole thing could happen all over again if another child becomes unwell. This is just going to cause massive, massive disruption to children's education.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has also warned of a "flood" of school closures unless pupils were able to get the tests they needed.

"If the Prime Minister does not get a grip of the testing crisis, children will be robbed of an education. We are seeing a growing flood of schools closures," he said.

But, speaking to LBC’s Nick Ferrari on Friday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock defended the testing system.

"We built a record capacity for coronavirus testing that we didn't have at the start, and we've built a contact tracing system that means hundreds of thousands of people have stayed and home and self-isolated," he told LBC.

The Health Secretary said they are currently "on track" to get to 500,000 tests per day by the end of October, but said he could "accept that there are challenges because the demand has shot up."