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NEU writes to Gavin Williamson about his “inoperable” mass testing plan

Following a briefing call on the proposals for a mass testing programme for secondary schools, beginning in January, the joint general secretaries of the @NEUnion, have written to the Secretary of State with a list of concerns.  

The full text of their letter to Gavin Williamson follows:  

17 December 2020 

Dear Gavin 

As we currently understand them, following a briefing call from the Schools’ Minister, Nick Gibb, we consider the current proposals to operate a mass testing programme for secondary school pupils to be inoperable.  Telling school leaders, on the last day of term, that they must organise volunteers and parents, supported by their staff, to test pupils in the first week of term, whilst year 11 and 13 pupils are on site for in school teaching, is a ridiculous ask of professionals who are exhausted by the unreasonable demands, backed by legal threats, that they have been subjected to this term. 

We are also highly concerned by the materials you issued on Tuesday 15th December, in the last week of term, which give rise to many questions, listed below: 

1.   The examples detailed in the testing handbook are, we understand, based on the reality that the army or other external trained staff ran the tests. Do you have any pilots where school staff have run these tests with no external support? 

2.   In your proposal school leaders are asked to find staff to run these tests. In today’s announcement, school leaders are asked to find volunteers, such as parents and governors, to run the tests. Running such medical procedures is significantly outside the experience and job description of existing school staff and volunteers. School leaders are anyway facing significant staff shortages due to the pandemic. What studies have you carried out about the feasibility of recruiting such staff, and volunteers? 

3.   The BMJ journal suggest that tests run by non-specialists are significantly less accurate, what pilots have you run on the accuracy of the tests that you are proposing? 

4.   You say that reasonable extra costs will be met – but you have not even met the costs that schools have so far run up in supply staff, what is your definition of “reasonable”? 

5.   The NEU has called for regular mass testing of asymptomatic staff and students: this would find asymptomatic cases and allow them and their contacts to be isolated, contributing to significantly driving down cases overall; however, our reading of your current proposals is that is not what you are suggesting. We understand that you mean whilst school staff are to be tested on a regular basis, school students would only be tested if they are a close contact of a student who has tested positive on the normal testing system. Is that correct?  (This was not the proposals as we understood it when PHE talked us through a pilot some time ago). 

6.   Further, what definition of close contact are you using? Given that students travel together both to and from school, mixing across year group bubbles and across schools, a definition that only includes those they sit next to in class may be deficient. Have you modelled various definitions of close contact? 

Your proposal suggests that it will allow asymptomatic students to be found, but on our reading, that is very misleading. Only close contacts will be tested but in some of those asymptomatic cases may be missed. Compared with the current methodology, where close contacts are asked to work from home, your proposal is likely to lead to more positive students being in school. What modelling or pilots do you have of that? 

The issues we raise, and the importance of the questions we ask, lead us again to ask you to meet us at the earliest opportunity so that we can understand better the thinking behind today’s announcement and the evidence behind the proposals before we decide if we can support them. 

With best wishes                                       

Mary Bousted                                                                 Kevin Courtney 

Joint General Secretary                                                   Joint General Secretary 

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