Armed forces personnel will be “on standby” to provide “in-person support” with mass testing of pupils next term, but most of the 1,500 people assigned will only provide support and phone advice.

The government announced earlier this month that secondary schools will be provided with millions of rapid-response lateral flow tests next month to test pupils twice after they return from the Christmas break.

Schools have been told they can also use the equipment to test asymptomatic staff weekly and to test contacts of confirmed Coronavirus cases.

The announcement prompted concerns about schools’ ability to carry out the testing. The Department for Education said at the time that further resources would be provided, and that armed forces personnel would be involved with planning.

But the government has now said that military personnel “will also be on standby to deploy at short notice to provide in-person support to resolve any issues in the situations where testing would otherwise not be able to go ahead”.

However, only 1,500 personnel have been assigned to support more than 3,400 schools, and most “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”.

“This will be done predominantly through webinars and individual meetings,” the DfE said.

Schools and colleges “will shortly be provided with further information on how to request additional support if needed”.

A small team of planners is “embedded in the Department for Health and Social care who are supporting the Department for Education to help coordinate the support”. The majority of personnel “will be on task from this week as they start to conduct training”.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson added: “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.”

It comes as ministers are still deliberating over whether to change their plans for the return of pupils to schools next term, after government scientists reportedly advised that schools may have to be closed next month to slow the spread of the new Covid strain.

The government announced earlier this month that most secondary school pupils will learn at home for the first week of term, with only exam students, vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers attending next week, but it has been reported that approach is now under review.

Downing Street hosted a meeting over the plans today, but no outcome has so far been announced.