Military on standby to help schools reopen – students face Covid tests amid ‘Tier 5’ fears

Sadiq Khan calls for mass testing in schools ready for January

As ministers press on with plans to reopen schools next month, the Ministry of Defence said 1,500 military personnel would be deployed to ensure that testing systems were up and running by the time pupils return next week. Exam-year students would go back to school as normal after the Christmas holidays but the majority of secondary school pupils will start the term online to allow headteachers to roll out mass testing of children and staff.


Primary school students and children of key workers are also expected to return to school from January 4.

Downing Street and Department for Education officials had heated discussions yesterday over the issue with Cabinet ministers understood to be divided over the issue.

A senior Whitehall source said “the importance” of the keeping schools “reopen” was made clear by Mr Williamson during the meeting with one adding to “It is of national importance to keep schools open.

“Child’s futures are extremely important.”

Under the rapid testing plans, thousands of students will swab themselves in the vast majority of cases.

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However, this would be done with the supervision of a school staff member or volunteer who has been trained for the role but teachers are not expected to take a role in the testing process.

The majority of the armed forces personnel 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.

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.

“I am grateful to the armed forces personnel, and all the school and college staff, leaders and volunteers working to put testing in place.

“This will help break chains of transmission, fight the virus, and help deliver the national priority of keeping education open for all.”

The decision follows successful testing pilots conducted in schools in November and December and the work is being done in conjunction with the Department for Education (DfE) and Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).

Schools were closed in March to all pupils apart from the children of key workers but thousands of students returned in September and finished for Christmas less than two weeks ago.

Now scientists fear the mutated variant of COVID-19 discovered in the UK earlier this month could more easily infect children if schools reopened early.

As revealed exclusively by last week, SAGE experts were pressing for tougher measures, which Government officials dubbed a “Tier 5” to fight the new strain.

They argued that the R rate will not fall below 1 without schools shutting, a key factor in bringing the virus under control.

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Sir Jeremy Farrar, a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said the arguments for reopening schools in January were “very finely balanced”.

He added: “I think the next few weeks going into January are going to be extremely difficult across the whole country.

“Certainly my own view is that schools opening is an absolute priority.

“But society – and eventually this is a political decision – will have to balance keeping schools open, if that is possible, with therefore closing down other parts of society.”

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

The letter called for 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.

In the letter, he wrote: “Delaying the return of pupils to schools and colleges at the start of the spring term will also enable all school and college employers to undertake and consult as required on new risk assessments and ensure that they can be compliant with any new measures or requirements contained in any forthcoming national guidance.”

The pressure is also being felt in Scotland with Nicola Sturgeon’s senior COVID-19 advisor admitting she wasn’t sure whether it would be safe to open schools as planned next month.

The Scottish Government has proposed that full-time face-to-face learning in the classroom is set to resume on January 18th, with pupils initially receiving online teaching from January 11th.

But Professor Devi Sridhar said further evidence was needed before a decision should be made on whether schools should reopen.

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The chairman of global public health at Edinburgh University and one of Miss Sturgeon’s most trusted scientific advisers said: ‘Getting loads of questions on reopening schools and the new variant. Honest answer is I don’t know yet.

“Assessing emerging evidence this week and need to analyse and reflect on what it shows.”

But Jo Bisset, organiser of parents group Us For Them Scotland urged the Scottish Government to not close schools.

She added: “The Scottish Government must not forget the harm caused by closing down schools during the first lockdown.

“They must not make that same mistake again.

“Any decision taken must consider the educational and social damage a period of isolation causes in the short, medium and long-term.

“It really regresses children’s development and puts immense pressure on families and their finances.

“The only responsible decision is to keep schools open normally as has successfully been the case for the first half of the school year.”

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “We are determined if at all possible, to get schools back to normal from January 18th.”


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