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The government is rolling out mass coronavirus testing in secondary schools in the worst-affected areas of London, Kent and Essex, the health secretary has announced.

Matt Hancock told the Downing Street press briefing today that the government had “decided to put in place an immediate plan for testing all secondary school age children in the seven worst-affected areas of London, in parts of Essex that border London and parts of Kent”.

Although schools have been involved in trials of coronavirus testing in several areas recently, this is the first mass testing programme aimed specifically at education settings.

Hancock said he was “particularly concerned” about the number of cases in those areas, and said that testing results show “that by far the fastest rise is among secondary school-age children, 11 to 18 years old, while the rate among adults in London is broadly flat”.

“But we know from experience that a sharp rise in younger people can lead to a rise amongst more vulnerable age groups later. We’ve seen that happen before. So we need to everything we can to stop the spread amongst school-age children right now. We must not wait until the review which will take place on December 16, we need to take targeted action immediately.

“Having spoken to the leaders of London’s councils and to the mayor, we’ve decided to put in place an immediate plan for testing all secondary school age children in the seven worst-affected areas of London, in parts of Essex that border London and parts of Kent.

“We want to keep schools open because that’s both right for education and right for public health. We’re therefore surging mobile testing units and we’ll be working with schools and local authorities to encourage these children and their families to get tested over the coming days. More details will be set out tomorrow.

“I want to urge all those involved to step forward for the testing. It’s important that 11 to 18-year-olds in these boroughs get tested even if they don’t have symptoms, and this is a really important point. Because we know that you can have Covid and you can still pass it on even without symptoms.”

Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the NAHT union, said the move was “clearly a very serious new development, and the government’s first priority must be the safety of those involved”.

Be he questioned why the government had not instead told schools to move to online learning. Wales announced today it was moving all secondary school pupils to remote learning from Monday.

Geoff Barton, the leader of ASCL, added: “We have to question why the plan is to mass test children, and there is apparently no consideration of moving to remote learning for the last week of term.”