Rapid Coronavirus testing

Lateral flow tests to be deployed to all secondary schools and colleges to help detect asymptomatic cases and break chains of transmission of Covid-19

  • Staff to be tested weekly, and staff and students to be tested daily if identified as a close contact
  • Government has made keeping schools open a national priority and testing will help keep children and young people in education 

Every secondary school and college in England, as well as special schools and alternative provision, will have access to rapid coronavirus testing from January to help keep staff and students as safe as possible and in education, the government has announced today.

Building on the success of testing pilots in schools and colleges over the past few months, from January all staff in secondary schools and colleges will be eligible for weekly rapid tests as part of an initial rollout.

Students will be eligible for daily testing for seven days if they are identified as a close contact of someone who has tested positive. Under current guidelines, up to a whole school bubble has to self-isolate if one student or staff member tests positive. From January, those in the same bubble not need to self-isolate if they agree to be tested once a day. This will improve attendance and ensure young people can benefit from face-to-face teaching as much as possible.

Staff will also be eligible for daily testing if they are identified as a close contact.

Roughly one in three people have the virus without symptoms so could be spreading the disease unknowingly. Asymptomatic testing helps to identify positive cases more quickly, and break chains of transmission. 

Primary schools will then be supported to roll out testing as quickly as possible over the spring term.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: 

“This huge expansion of rapid testing for those working in education is a milestone moment in our work to keep schools and colleges open for all.

“I know it has taken a phenomenal effort from everyone to ensure approximately 99% of schools have been open each week since the start of term.

“Testing on this scale brings real benefits to education, it means more children, teachers and staff can stay in their classes in schools and colleges without the need to self-isolate.”

Consent will be given in all cases by the staff member, student, or parent as appropriate. Close contacts of positive cases who do not want to participate in daily testing will still be able to self-isolate as is currently the case.

Guidance, training materials and webinars will shortly be made available to secondary schools and colleges so they can start to use the new testing capacity as soon as possible.

The pilots that have taken place in schools and colleges over the autumn term have shown the positive impact regular testing can have in finding asymptomatic cases before they spread and reducing the need to self-isolate amongst staff and students.

The pilots have shown how testing is an additional reassurance and protective measure, on top of the wide range of effective measures schools and colleges already have in place, including increased hygiene, ventilation, and wearing of face coverings in communal areas where appropriate.

Test kits will begin arriving at secondary schools and colleges for the first phase of rollout to staff from the first week of January.

Dr Susan Hopkins, Senior Medical Adviser to PHE and NHS Test and Trace:

“Lateral flow devices are a vital additional tool in helping us detect COVID-19 cases that we wouldn’t otherwise know about, meaning that we can break chains of transmission and save lives.

“In schools these tests can help make students and staff safer by helping us quickly identify many people who are unknowingly carrying high levels of the virus, preventing them from passing it on to others.”

Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock said:

“It is so important we drive down transmission rates among school age children, so we are rolling out rapid testing in all schools as quickly as possible, and asking everyone offered a test to come forward for a test. 

“About one in three people who have coronavirus have no symptoms and will be spreading it without realising it, rapid regular testing offers a reliable and effective way to keep schools open and children learning.

“It will also help us to identify asymptomatic cases that we otherwise wouldn’t know about, and protect the wider community beyond the school gates.”

Hamid Patel, CEO of Star Academies, a trust with schools participating in the autumn testing trials, said:

“Testing was arranged to be as unintrusive as possible, and the benefits have been tremendous.

“Attendance has improved as fewer close contacts have been required to self-isolate. Parents who may have been wavering have gained confidence to send their children to school, and staff have been reassured by the availability of testing.

“Testing has allowed us to refocus on teaching and learning. I am heartened that the scheme is to be rolled out nationally: it is a game-changer for the sector.”

Gerard Garvey, Principal of Newcastle Sixth Form College, a college participating in the autumn testing trials, said:

“Testing at Newcastle Sixth Form College has given all of our students and staff the reassurance that the college is a safe environment for them to work and study.

“The testing process is smooth and has minimal impact on teaching and learning.

“The daily testing of close contacts has enabled students who would normally have had to self-isolate to continue to attend and enjoy the benefits of face-to-face teaching.”

Association of Colleges - the national membership body for colleges - has responded to the government's announcement of weekly tests for school and college staff. Chief Executive, David Hughes said:

“Keeping learning happening has been a number one priority for every college since day one. They have done incredible things to support students and staff with little time and no precedent – including quickly taking learning online. Until a more full roll-out of the vaccine, it is clear that a strong testing and track and trace system is the best way that education and training can remain open and operating effectively, which is why we’ve been calling for regular testing since the summer.

"This is a positive move in the right direction and one that will be welcomed by colleges. As with all things, implementation is key – it is vital that this happens smoothly and quickly, with as little impact on staff workload and learning time as possible.”

Association of Employment and Learning Providers Managing Director Jane Hickie said:

“We have discussed this with the DfE and we would like this expanded as soon as possible to other providers.  Some of the larger Study Programme providers who deliver more face to face on site classroom provision would be interested as would more specialists with residential provision. 

"On apprenticeships, the big blocker at the moment is some employers not being able to allow providers on site.  Providers can work around this for some aspects of delivery, but functional skills assessments are significantly hindered.  If tests were available to apprenticeship providers, you might see strong interest in this as it would offer more assurance to more employers to let invigilation staff into more workplaces to preside over exams.  Every little would help as we have a significant logjam for functional skills testing at the moment.”

Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, comments:   

"Has the Government learned nothing from the mishandling of every other aspect of its policy in relation to Covid-19 and education?  

“Of course mass testing is important in bringing the virus under control in schools and colleges. 

The NEU has been calling for wider testing for months but plans for the way to do this should have been thought through much earlier this term, and fully consulted on with the profession.   

"This announcement gives almost zero notice for unions to assess the plans, or for schools to implement them.  

"The government’s suggestion that the preparation for the roll-out of testing should happen this week is ridiculous. It will anger school leaders and their colleagues who have constantly been treated as an afterthought by this Government.  

"Schools would return in January unprepared in reality and with a significant build-up of cases from the Christmas relaxation. 

"A much more sensible position, which we urge the Government to adopt, would be that the first week, at least, of learning in January should be online, with schools using that time to train staff on using the testing materials and protocols. That extra week of children being at home would suppress virus levels so that far fewer children had to be sent home when testing begins. 

"We also need to see the studies showing how a system of serial testing, in which close contacts are kept at school and tested daily, has worked as a strategy to keep virus levels low. It is reasonable to suppose that children are transmitting inside and outside school, so only testing close contacts may miss a significant percentage of positive cases.  

"This rushed introduction is not a good starting point for building the confidence of parents or staff." 

Patrick Roach, General Secretary of the NASUWT-The Teachers’ Union, said:

“Offering routine tests for Covid among pupils and staff is a potentially helpful additional measure for schools and colleges to draw upon to help them remain open as safely as possible.

“However, the introduction of mass testing is not a panacea to tackling the virus in education settings and it must not be allowed to compromise other Covid security measures in schools and colleges. It remains of serious concern that the Government has not taken action to ensure that all schools and colleges are supported and fully resourced to ensure that essential Covid-safety measures are in place to minimise the risk of transmission of the virus amongst pupils and staff.

“The variable accuracy of lateral flow tests is already a concern and the effectiveness of the testing programme will need to be closely monitored to ensure it does not undermine the safety of pupils or staff.

“It will also be important that this strategy is not used to keep schools open in circumstances where the number of pupils or staff testing positive within a school or college indicates that full or partial closures are the safest option. The desire to minimise disruption to pupils’ learning must not be allowed to override the safety of pupils or staff.

“The NASUWT will be seeking urgent further clarification from the DfE about how these tests are to be administered and by whom. The NASUWT is clear that it is not the responsibility of teachers or school leaders to undertake testing of pupils or employees and will be expecting the Government to confirm that it does not expect teaching staff to carry out this work.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said:

“It is extremely disappointing that what had the potential to be good news has been handled so badly by government. The government is in danger of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory once again.

“The use of lateral flow tests in schools has potential to make a positive impact by helping to break chains of transmission early. But this requires not only sufficient tests but also the trained staff to administer them. The government appears able to deliver on one but not the other - it is delivering testing kits to secondary schools without the staff, the training or the clinical supervision to carry them out effectively.

“Removing school staff from the classroom and retraining them to administer clinical tests is a deeply flawed proposal. Schools and parents alike will want every education professional focused on supporting pupils to catch-up on lost learning throughout the Spring term.

“The government must look at alternatives to asking school staff to administer these tests. One solution could be to use the volunteers who signed up earlier in the year to support the NHS. They could be trained, accredited and insured and then sent in to support schools. This could then be expanded further if it was seen to be successful.

“Whilst the intent to make regular testing available to all secondary staff is welcome, we are extremely concerned that self-administered tests are not being made available to primary school staff too. We know that social distancing is incredibly difficult when working with younger pupils and as such it seems only right that they also have access to regular Covid tests. The same goes for staff in the SEND sector.”

UNISON head of education Jon Richards said:

“Effective testing is key to defeating the virus. School staff want widespread testing – they’ve been calling for it for months. But they also want the government to get this one right.  

“Staff will worry that the government appears more concerned with headline grabbing than discussing the detail. 

“This is a huge operation. Expecting plans for mass testing to start in the same week heads are grappling with the decision over whether to close early is too much.  

“Education unions want to work with the government, but important questions remain about how and when it will happen and who’s paying.”

Cllr Judith Blake, Chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said:

“Councils want to work with schools and local health teams to do all they can to ensure staff, pupils, parents and visitors can be in school settings, safely and securely, without risk of passing on coronavirus.

“COVID-19 testing in schools is one tool to help local authorities in their drive to keep schools open to ensure pupils don’t fall further behind in their education.

“However, we are concerned over the impact on school staff and the need for them to be trained if they are expected to administer the testing fully and safely, as well as the expected timescale to achieve this, which will fall to already exhausted staff and leadership teams. Government also needs to recognise and utilise the experience of school nurses in this roll-out and learn from the experience of testing in the care sector.

“They all need to have full confidence in arrangements for testing, knowing that the risks and benefits are fully understood, alongside continued safety measures including use of PPE, social distancing and hand hygiene.

"Schools are based in the heart of communities so it is vital that schools testing aligns with other parts of the system, such as contact tracing and test and trace local outbreak management, and is planned and resourced alongside directors of public health and councils.” 

According to DfE, there is no expectation that school and college staff will need to work on this over the Christmas break. Existing staff meetings or inset days can be used for training as appropriate for each individual setting.

Schools and colleges will be provided with the necessary equipment and materials to deliver the testing and will be reimbursed for reasonable administrative costs such as staff time.

DfE are continuing to work with local authorities to trial approaches to regular testing in early years settings, and expect provision to increase throughout the spring.

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