Minister's failed promises on testing 'undermining' school returns as thousands face delays

The government’s failure to provide the promised access to Covid testing is undermining the full reopening of schools – with more than 200 schools reporting delays, a union has warned.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the difficulty in accessing tests means that pupils and staff with symptoms are having to self-isolate at home for longer than might be necessary.

In its guidance for full opening of schools, updated this week, the Department for Education said: “The government will ensure that it is as easy as possible to get a test through a wide range of routes that are locally accessible, fast and convenient.”

However, more than 200 ASCL members yesterday reported difficulties getting tests, causing even further disruption to the education of pupils attempting to make up for lost learning, with reports of people also being told their “nearest” testing centre is hundreds of miles away (one reportedly a 1,100-mile round trip).

While this number represents a small percentage of the open schools in England, ASCL said it means “thousands of children and teachers unable to come into school”. 

“We are very concerned that the fantastic work of schools and colleges in putting in place a raft of safety measures in order to fully reopen for the autumn term is at risk of being derailed by a lack of capacity in the test and trace system,” Barton said.

“This is not a criticism of the health workers involved, who are having to operate under great pressure, and are doing their very best in difficult circumstances. Our frustration is with the government which has failed to live up to its promise to ensure that the test and trace system is able to meet the level of demand that it must have been perfectly obvious would be needed.

“Even now, the health secretary seems to be in denial, choosing to blame people for seeking tests when they are not eligible, rather than addressing the problem.” 

Health minister Matt Hancock yesterday claimed “whole schools” had been attempting to secure Covid testing.

Speaking to LBC’s Nick Ferrari, he said: “The capacity in the testing system is at the highest it’s been and the challenge is we’ve seen a sharp rise in people without symptoms coming forward and that has led to people with symptoms, who need a test, either not being able to get one or having to travel long distances.

“We’ve had whole schools saying that they want to come forward for testing and send all the pupils for testing – this is not appropriate. 

“Instead we have to use the tests for people who have symptoms until we get the next generation of tests.”

Schools Week has made repeated requests for the Department of Health and Social Care to verify these claims but it has not yet provided any evidence of this. 

Barton added: “Staff and pupils must be able to obtain tests immediately and easily, so that if they are clear of the virus they can return to school as soon as possible, and if they are positive then the appropriate action can be taken to contact and isolate close contacts.

“If this does not happen the system will come under increasing strain and the health risks will grow.”

Schools Week previously reported school leaders’ anger at having their ability to help pupils catch-up on months of lost learning “derailed” by the Covid-19 testing system failures.

Yesterday Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said the situation was a “shambles”.

Schools minister Nick Gibb said in September that pupils or staff members with symptoms will be given “priority in the testing regime”.

But Sarah-Jane Marsh, director of the government’s test and trace programme, this week offered “heartfelt apologies to anyone who cannot get a COVID test at present”.

The director said while testing sites have capacity, the system’s laboratory processing has reached a “critical pinch-point”.

She said additional labs are “due to open-up imminently” to deal with the bottleneck, but health secretary Matt Hancock on Tuesday told MPs it would take a fortnight to resolve these processing problems.

Despite the current problems, a leaked government document obtained by the British Medical Journal outlines plans for teachers to get regular testing under the £100 billion “Operation Moonshot”.

Prime minister Boris Johnson said millions of Covid-19 tests could be processed daily, including some that give results within minutes, adding the mass testing programme could be ready by spring. But the technology for such tests does not even exist yet.