The prime minister dodged questions about a lack of Covid testing available for school pupils in the House of Commons, claiming the government is doing its “level best” to test every child with symptoms.
Boris Johnson was grilled on problems with access to testing for school pupils by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.
Statistics released yesterday by the Department for Education show the proportion of schools partially closed due to confirmed or suspected Covid cases has quadrupled in just one week, while heads’ union the NAHT has warned that four in five schools have pupils isolating because they can’t get a test.
During today’s prime minister’s questions, Starmer warned there was “no effective system” to deal with “inevitable” outbreaks of “coughs, bugs and flu” since children returned to school.
“Many can’t get tests quickly. Schools were allocated only 10 tests. Many wait days for the results. The outcome is obvious. Child [sic] and siblings off school. Mum, dad or carer off work, and in some cases all year groups off school. How on earth did we get into this mess?”
In response, Johnson insisted there was an “exceptionally small risk to children of primary and secondary school age from this disease”, and that children “have a significantly lower rate of infection”.
“But he also knows that we are doing our level best to get every child a test who has symptoms and further, that thanks to the efforts of teachers in this country, of parents, pupils, 99.9 per cent of our schools are now back in spite of all his attempts I may say throughout the summer to sow doubt on the idea that schools were safe. The people of this country had more common sense.”
School pupils and staff have been affected by widespread problems with the government’s test and trace system, with a shortage of capacity compounded by a coding error on the website.
But a lack of testing isn’t the only barrier faced by schools.
Schools Week revealed earlier this month that the government had been forced to set up a national helpline for schools to report positive coronavirus cases following some being left in “limbo” waiting three days to get official health advice.
It followed an investigation by this newspaper which revealed how schools were waiting days for advice from local health protection teams on how to handle outbreaks.
Speaking in Parliament earlier, Starmer criticised Johnson’s “poor defence”.
“The point isn’t whether the children have got Covid, it’s that they’ve got Covid symptoms. And then they’re off school,” he said.
“The government’s own department shows that one in eight children are off school this week. That disrupts their education. Whether it’s Covid symptoms or other symptoms is nothing to the point. If the prime minister doesn’t see that he’s really out of touch with families and what they’re going through with schooling day in day out in the last few weeks.”
But Johnson remained defiant, adding: “The essence of what we’re saying is that we want to depress the virus, keep pupils in school and keep our economy moving. That is the single best thing we can do to support firms across the country.”
The government announced earlier this week that teachers are fifth on its priority list for tests. However, the list makes no mention of school pupils, despite earlier pledges that they would also receive priority access to tests.