Gavin Williamson has urged families whose children are sent home due to a positive case detected in the classroom not to seek coronavirus tests unless they have symptoms.
The education secretary’s remarks came as Boris Johnson was accused of blaming the public for chaos in the UK’s testing system after he said a “colossal spike” in demand was driving delays – just weeks after classrooms returned.
As the government faces mounting criticism over a shortage in Covid-19 tests across the country, Mr Williamson said “only” those with symptoms should attempt to get a test.
He told the Commons Education Select Committee: “If a child and their contacts have been sent home, it’s not that all those children are sent home should be getting tested. It is only the child that is displaying symptoms as against the whole cohort.”
Earlier, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said keeping schools open could become “unsustainable” if issues with testing were not fixed by ministers.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “This will feel I think like lockdown by default - it will be more frustrating for parents because you can’t predict whether it is going to happen. And similarly from the headteacher’s point of view, if my Year 4 teacher today shows symptoms, will he or she be in school tomorrow, will they be here for the next 14 days?
“As soon as you start to get that with six, seven, eight teachers, it becomes unsustainable to be able to run things.”
Addressing MPs on Wednesday, Mr Williamson also said he had discussed problems facing schools’ access to testing with Baroness Dido Harding, the director of the NHS Test and Trace programme.
“She highlighted some concerns schools had had in terms of the turnaround and to ensure that teachers are able to get tested as swiftly as possible and are able to be in a position to be back to teaching at the earliest possible stage,” he said.
Pressed by Robert Halfon, the senior Conservative who chairs the committee, whether he could “guarantee” that pupils and teachers who need local Covid-19 tests would be able to get them within 48 hours, Mr Williamson declined to do so.
He said: “Schools are, I think, are the only organisation that actually has a set of testing kits that have been sent to them directly in order to be able to ensure that if they are in a situation where someone isn’t in a position to be able to get a test then they actually have testing kits on site. That is something that is quite unique and very important.”
Mr Williamson added that each school and college in England was given 10 home-testing kits at the start of the term and schools can order more kits online directly from the NHS from today.