Secondary school pupils urged to have regular Covid-19 tests during autumn term

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Returning secondary school pupils are being urged to get tested – and vaccinated where possible – to stop coronavirus spreading and minimise disruption to lessons over the autumn term.

Ministers are launching a campaign, backed by an Olympic champion and a TV doctor, to persuade parents, secondary school and college students to take part in voluntary asymptomatic Covid-19 testing.

Attendance advisers are being recruited to work with local authorities and multi-academy trusts where absence rates are higher than average.

This comes as an expert advising the Government warned that music festivals and schools returning will lead to a “significant surge” in Covid-19 infections.

Unions have called for more action to ensure schools are kept as safe as possible and education is not disrupted further.

The campaign has been endorsed by 18-year-old swimmer Matthew Richards, who won a gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, and NHS consultant paediatrician and TV presenter Dr Ranj Singh.

Mr Richards told students: “Make sure you test before you go back, and twice weekly – even if you don’t have symptoms – so you can get back to the things you love like competitive sports and school matches.”

Pupils began returning to school in Leicestershire this week, with most pupils in England set to head back to class over the next fortnight.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “I have every confidence that school and college staff, parents and students will continue to work together admirably, following pragmatic measures like testing and vaccinations to minimise disruption and keep children where they belong – in the classroom.”

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson speaking to MPs in the House of Commons
Gavin Williamson (House of Commons/PA)

Department for Education (DfE) guidance states that secondary school and college pupils in England should be tested twice on-site on their return, with lateral flow tests carried out between three and five days apart.

Pupils should then continue to test twice weekly at home until the end of September, when the policy will be reviewed.

It comes as NHS England said more than half a million 16 and 17-year-olds have had their first dose, with efforts continuing to encourage teenagers to get a jab, including revellers at the Reading and Leeds festival this weekend being offered a vaccine dose at pop-up clinics set up across the two sites.

Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, said: “Around one in three people who have coronavirus have no symptoms, so it is vital that we continue rapid testing in schools to help uncover hidden cases of the virus at the start of term.”

Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid added: “I urge parents to encourage their children to take regular tests, to help break chains of transmission and stop the virus spreading.”

Schools received guidance in July setting out the measures they should implement from September, including maintaining increased hygiene and ventilation, but year group “bubbles” and face coverings have been removed.

Dr Jenny Harries during a media briefing in Downing Street
Jenny Harries (Toby Melville/PA)

Children no longer have to isolate if they come into contact with a positive case. Instead, they will need to get a PCR test and isolate only if positive.

The DfE is also reissuing its ‘remote education direction’, which requires schools to offer immediate access to high-quality online learning where students need to self-isolate.

But education union leaders are concerned that less strict safety measures this term may lead to higher cases and even more disruption to lessons.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “Government guidance is very different from the last academic year and the control measures are less stringent.

“Our concerns are over the potential risk of a high number of infections among pupils which cause more educational disruption and may lead to some young people suffering serious symptoms.”

He added: “It will be very important that the Government is ready to act in the event of a rising tide of coronavirus infections and provide further support to schools and colleges as necessary.”

Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, added: “The Government needs to do much more than issue warm words and hope for the best – it must do everything in its power to ensure that schools are kept as safe as possible so that as few children as possible miss out on education this year.”

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “This charm offensive from Government to parents relies on the notion that the removal of safety requirements will magically transform school and college life.

“However, its admission last week that CO2 monitors will be needed should be sufficient evidence that Gavin Williamson made a bad call when removing so many mitigations last term – and, once again, squandered the summer break.”

He added: “Leaders will want to consider continuing with face coverings in secondary schools, social distancing where possible, and special arrangements for vulnerable staff.”

Schools in Scotland returned last week after the summer break and is believed to have fuelled the country’s sudden spike in coronavirus cases.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon warned she could not rule out reimposing Covid restrictions as the number of new daily cases hit the highest level ever.

The Welsh Government has asked that parents test their children for coronavirus at least twice a week regardless of whether they have symptoms or not once the new academic year starts in September.

All 16 and 17-year-olds in Wales have now been offered the vaccine and 12 to 15-year-olds who are clinically vulnerable will also be offered vaccination before term starts.

The latest Government figures show there were a further 35,847 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases in the UK as of Wednesday, and another 149 people had died within 28 days of testing positive.

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