Keeping children in school amid the pandemic is the Government’s main priority, a minister has said.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said the plans to mass test secondary school and college students in parts of north-east London, Essex and Kent for Covid-19 have the objective of keeping them in education.
His comments came after an education union questioned the Government’s decision not to move to remote learning in secondary schools in England in the last week of term amid a rise in cases among pupils.
Speaking to BBC Breakfast, Mr Dowden said: “As a Government we are doing everything we can first of all to prioritise kids remaining in schools, and the vast majority of children remain in schools.
“And secondly, to ensure that schools continue to be a safe place – and I pay tribute to teachers and head teachers and all the work they have done.”
In Wales, secondary schools and colleges will move to online learning from Monday following advice from the Welsh chief medical officer that the public health situation in the country is “deteriorating”.
When asked why England is not following suit, Mr Dowden said the Government’s aim is to keep pupils in education through mass testing.
Ministers are urging staff, pupils and families in secondary schools and colleges in parts of north-east London, south Essex and Kent to get tested from this weekend.
It came after the Department of Health and Social Care warned Covid-19 cases in those areas of England have been rising rapidly, with the fastest rates among those aged between 11 to 18.
An additional 44,000 home test kits will be made available for school staff in the capital, and 15 mobile testing units (MTU) will be deployed in or near schools in the worst-affected boroughs.
The London boroughs receiving additional tests are: Barking and Dagenham; Hackney and the City; Havering; Newham; Redbridge; Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest.
Downing Street said 75,000 additional PCR tests will be made available for schools in areas of concern in London to help stem the spread of coronavirus.
In Essex, an additional 10 MTUs will be deployed over the weekend in Southend, Basildon, Canvey Island, Harlow and Brentwood, and in Kent 12 MTUs will be set up.
Schools and colleges will be provided with information on how to get involved, and parents will be able to apply for tests using the online portal.
But Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), questioned why the Government has not chosen to end in-person teaching on the last week of term.
He said: “There doesn’t appear to be any clear rationale about why the Government has ignored the option of moving secondary schools to remote education in these areas given the fact that it has clearly identified a significant risk of transmission among this age group.
“We are also very concerned that there are many other areas of England with high infection rates where the Government has failed to take the action that it is now taking in parts of London, Kent, and Essex.”
Mr Dowden refused to comment on whether the Government might close schools early ahead of Christmas to help slow the spread of coronavirus.
Speaking to Times Radio, he said: “The main thing we are doing in respect of schools, which you have seen today, is to have this mass testing to pick up on those kids who are asymptomatic.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “We want to keep schools and colleges open because it is right both for education and public health, but in the face of rapidly rising cases we must act to target rising rates in secondary school pupils.
“I urge every student, parent and teacher in these areas to step forward for testing – irrespective of whether they have symptoms. While Covid-19 may be lower risk to children and young people, it still poses a significant risk to their families and communities.”