Pupils and teachers 'will get access to coronavirus testing' when schools return

13 May 2020, 15:03

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson says pupils and staff with symptoms will be able to access testing

By Megan White

All teachers and school pupils will have access to tests for Covid-19 if they develop symptoms when they return to schools, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said.

Speaking in the House of Commons, the Secretary of State acknowledged allowing pupils to return to school will be "challenging" but said he knows staff will do “everything in their power” to welcome children back.

Mr Williamson said the Government has worked "very closely with all the teaching unions and headteachers' unions", with time made available each week to discuss matters.

But his comments came as the UK's leading education unions called on the government to "step back" from its proposed plan to start reopening schools in England from 1 June.

Answering an urgent Commons question from Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman Layla Moran, Mr Williamson said: "On Monday my department published initial guidance for settings on how to begin to prepare and we'll work with the sector leaders to develop this further in the coming weeks.

"This guidance sets out protective measures to minimise the risk of infection, including restricting class sizes and limiting mixing between groups.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson speaks in the House of Commons on Wednesday
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson speaks in the House of Commons on Wednesday. Picture: PA

"Crucially all children and staff will have access to testing if they develop symptoms of coronavirus.

"This will enable a track-and-trace approach to be taken to any confirmed cases."

He added: "We continue to follow the best medical and scientific advice and believe that this phased return is the most sensible course of action to take.

"I know that this will be challenging but I know that nursery, school and college staff will do everything in their power to start welcoming our children back to continue their education."

Mr Williamson said he is looking "very closely" at proposals for summer school catch-up tuition.

Labour's shadow education secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey said that the guidance provided by the Government on schools does not provide the "clear assurances" needed on safety.

She said social distancing for younger school year groups would be "virtually impossible".

She told the Commons: "We all desperately want schools to reopen for the sake of children's education and wellbeing.

"But (Mr Williamson) must appreciate that the guidance provided so far does not yet provide the clear assurances over safety that are needed.

"Shielding families, anxious, worried grandparents and teaching staff in fear, sadly sums up the theme of the last 48 hours.

"Will he (Mr Williamson) acknowledge that for younger year groups social distancing will be virtually impossible and that the current guidance sadly gives the impression that those pupils and staff should just accept being exposed?"

Mr Williamson responded: "I have always been clear that we would give the sector as much notice as possible and we have said that if we are allowed, which it seems likely that we will be able to, we'd like to see schools opening from June 1, giving schools as much forward notice as possible in order for them to get ready.

Mother's concerns over her children returning to school following lockdown

"We think this is a responsible and sensible approach in terms of the phased return."

Labour's Mary Kelly Foy (City of Durham) also raised concerns about the return to schools.

"Education unions are clear, there can be no compromise on health and safety. These proposals are ill-thought-out and reckless. They will at best create a sterile learning environment for young children who won't understand why they are unable to interact with their friends.

"At worst the proposals will set off a chain of new infections back into the households of working people.

"How can it be right that without any scientific evidence, school staff and their pupils have to accept lower safety standards?"

Responding in the Commons during an urgent question, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: "The only consideration behind this decision is what is in the best interests and the welfare of children and those who work in schools.

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"And we all recognise the importance of children being able to return to schools and sometimes scaremongering and making people fear is really unfair and not a welcome pressure that is to be placed on families, children and teachers alike."

On testing he said: "We already have priority testing for all teachers and those who work in schools if they have symptoms of coronavirus.

“This priority testing will be extended to all children who attend school and, if they're displaying symptoms, as well as their families.

“We recognise how important test and trace is in terms of beating this pandemic."