Military to support mass testing of pupils in England schools

29 December 2020, 08:34 | Updated: 29 December 2020, 08:56

The armed forces helped with mass testing in Liverpool in November
The armed forces helped with mass testing in Liverpool in November. Picture: Getty

By Patrick Grafton-Green

Members of the armed forces are being drafted in to support the coronavirus testing of thousands of school and college students in England.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced 1,500 military personnel will be deployed when pupils return in January to ensure testing systems are up and running.

The majority will form local response teams, providing support and phone advice to institutions needing guidance on the testing process and set-up of the testing facilities.

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According to the MoD, support will be done "predominantly through webinars and individual meetings" but teams will also be on standby to provide in-person support at short notice.

The Government is planning a staggered return for schools, with primary, Year 11 and Year 13 pupils going back in the first week of January followed by other students later in the month.

Pupils will swab themselves in the vast majority of cases, under the supervision of a school staff member or volunteer who has been trained for the role, and teachers are not expected to take a role in the testing process.

The MoD added schools and colleges would shortly be provided with further information on how to request additional support if necessary.

The armed forces were previously recruited to assist with pilot mass testing schemes in Liverpool in November.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said they would “share considerable experience of testing across the country and the successful school pilots conducted this autumn.”

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: "It is a true cross-government effort to make sure secondary schools and colleges have the support, guidance, materials and funding they need to offer rapid testing to their staff and students from the start of term.”

It comes amid growing pressure on the Government to abandon plans to reopen secondary schools in January amid concerns it could cause further spikes in coronavirus cases.

Two teaching unions have warned that allowing students to return will put them at risk of catching the new variants of Covid-19.

Members of the Government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) have reportedly told ministers schools reopening could cause infections to spiral even in the event of another national lockdown, according to the Telegraph.

The paper also reported that Sage advisers have suggested closing the majority of schools in January may keep the R number - the rate of infections - below one.

A meeting was held between ministers, Downing Street officials and the Department for Education on Monday to discuss the plan further, but the DfE would not comment on its outcome.

The Times reported Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove were among those who suggested a delayed reopening would be necessary, while Mr Williamson wanted to "push ahead" with the current plan.

Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT, wrote to the Education Secretary on Monday demanding further action on school safety.

The letter urged Mr Williamson to allow schools to move to remote learning for all pupils, except those deemed to be vulnerable or the children of key workers, in the highest tier areas.

The union is also asking the Government to publish new safety guidance in light of the new Covid-19 variant, introduce mandatory face coverings in schools and give staff priority access to the vaccine.

Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretaries of the National Education Union (NEU), have also written to Mr Williamson, along with Prime Minister Boris Johnson, reiterating calls for schools and colleges to remain closed for at least the first two weeks of January, except for vulnerable children and the children of key workers.

The letter asks the Government to share the evidence and advice received from experts about schools reopening from the chief medical officer.

"You certainly cannot expect education staff to show good will towards your plans for education if you do not at least share all the information you have about this dreadful disease with them," it states.

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