The government has removed its advice for staff and students in most schools to test twice a week for Covid from today.
The Department for Education confirmed the guidance would be scrapped for all settings except special schools, alternative provision and SEND units in mainstream settings.
Prime minister Boris Johnson told the House of Commons it was time to move from “government restrictions to personal responsibility”, announcing that the legal requirement to self-isolate following a positive test will end this Thursday.
Those testing positive, including school staff and pupils, will still be advised to stay at home if they test positive until April 1, and after that to exercise “personal responsibility”.
Testing advice to remain in place for special schools and AP
And from today, the government is “removing the guidance for staff and students in most education and childcare settings to undertake twice weekly asymptomatic testing”, Johnson said. DfE ‘actions for schools’ guidance has been updated to reflect the change.
This will apply to all settings except special schools, AP and SEND units in mainstream schools, where staff and students will continue to be advised to test weekly.
According to an email to heads, education testing delivery channels will remain open “so that staff and students of secondary age and above can access tests if needed to respond to local public health advice, in particular in relation to outbreaks”.
Schools “may be advised” to reintroduce asymptomatic testing in the event of an outbreak, but only if measures are advised and agreed by a local director of public health or health protection team.
From April 1, the government will end “free symptomatic and asymptomatic testing for the general public”, though those in the oldest age groups and the most vulnerable will still get free symptomatic tests.
Johnson also announced today that almost all remaining legal provisions in the 2020 Coronavirus Act will expire on March 24, with only four remaining in place for six months.
New guidance says schools should “maintain your capacity to deliver high-quality remote education across this academic year”.
The latest attendance data published by the Department for Education showed around 320,000 pupils remained absent for Covid-related reasons on February 3.
Positive cases still advised to stay at home
The legal requirement to self-isolate following a positive test will be removed this Thursday, but adults and children testing positive will still be advised to stay at home for at least five full days and follow guidance until they have received two negative tests on consecutive days.
Fully vaccinated close contacts and those under 18 will also no longer be asked to test daily for seven days, and the legal requirement for non-fully-vaccinated close contacts to isolate will also be lifted. Routine contact tracing will also come to an end.
Staff, children and young people “should attend their education settings as usual,” the DfE has told heads. This includes staff “who have been in close contact within their household, unless they are able to work from home”.
The DfE said further detail would be published by the UK Health Security Agency on Thursday.
The UKHSA advice service will also be decommissioned from April 1, though the DfE’s Covid helpline will still be available.
‘Schools are safe’, claims Johnson
Asked about how education would be protected in future, Johnson said the government was “ensuring that schools are able to be as Covid secure as possible” by sending out 350,000 CO2 monitors and 9,000 air-cleaning units.
“And I think it’s very very important that we should get the message over to everybody that schools are safe,” he added.
But during a Downing Street press conference tonight, government chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance warned the country needed to “go very carefully, we need to monitor carefully and be prepared to react”.
“The other thing that I think is clear…this virus feeds off inequality and it drives inequality and that needs to be borne in mind at all times.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL school leaders’ union, warned the changes felt like a “headlong rush rather than a sensibly phased approach”, which “may actually lead to an increase in disruption if it means that more positive cases come into the classroom”.
“Staff and pupils are often absent not just because they test positive but because they are actually ill with the coronavirus and this will obviously not abate if there is more transmission.”
He also warned that vulnerable staff and pupils would “inevitably feel more scared and less protected”.
Covid changes risk ‘conflict with parents’
The change in self-isolation rules “also opens the door for conflict with parents who may interpret symptoms that may or may not be coronavirus differently from their child’s teachers”.
Paul Whiteman, leader of the NAHT union, said the changes had “the potential to have an enormous impact on schools”, and called for lateral-flow tests to remain free for pupils.
He said it was “absolutely essential” that the government “very quickly provides clear and unambiguous guidance so that schools and parents have a clear understanding of what to do should a child or member of staff have Covid”.
Without that clarity, there is a “real risk the government could create a chaotic situation in schools and put school leaders in an impossible position”.
“We simply cannot expect schools to manage this on an individual basis, there must be clear guidance from the public health experts.”