Free Covid testing in special schools in England to end this month
England/March 16, 2022/By: Heather Stewart and Richard Adams/Source: https://www.theguardian.com/
All free Covid testing in special schools and children’s care homes in England is to come to an end this month as the government presses ahead with its plan to return to normal life despite rising cases of the virus.
Last month the government dropped its recommendation that secondary school pupils in England should take Covid tests twice a week, but said special schools would still be given free tests.
However, the Guardian understands that with no additional funding available to continue it, even that provision will now come to an end.
One source suggested the reaction within the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) to the decision had been one of “shock and distaste”.
The head of one group of special schools in the Midlands said Covid could spread rapidly within the setting, and without access to free testing families would be more cautious about sending their children to school.
“It’s taken a long time for us to persuade some carers that school is safe for their child but without testing we won’t have that daily reassurance,” the executive head said.
“We have struggled with staff shortages before this. Another outbreak would mean some students having to stay home if we can’t maintain our [staff to student] ratios. A month ago I would have thought: OK, fine, we can get along without tests. But the last two weeks mean that warning lights are flashing again.”
Children’s care homes were previously issued with batches of free tests and were able to order more as needed, but this is not expected to continue.
The announcement of the government’s “living with Covid” plan, which included lifting the obligation to self-isolate, was delayed last month as the Treasury and the Department of Health wrangled over financing.
The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, was reluctant to continue funding the costly testing system, though the health secretary, Sajid Javid, insisted it must be ready to ramp up again if needed. Free lateral flow tests will no longer be available from April, and most other free testing is coming to an end.
Javid will have to fund any continued testing for NHS staff from within his department’s budget, with details yet to be announced.
The education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, has repeatedly said he wants to see the UK “demonstrate to the world how you transition from pandemic to endemic”. School attendance figures in recent weeks have reassured the department.
However, there is concern among teaching unions and school leaders about the impact of scrapping all testing, particularly against the background of rising infections. The latest ONS infection survey suggested one in 25 people in England had Covid in the week to 5 March.
Last week a group of education unions sent a private letter toZahawi urging him to make tests freely available for schools and colleges, to minimise disruption for staff and students taking A-level, BTec and GCSE exams this spring.
Julie McCulloch, the director of policy at the Association of School College Leaders, said: “The coronavirus has far from disappeared and all schools and colleges, and particularly those with vulnerable students, will be acutely aware that it might not take much for infection rates to rise rapidly again.
“If students and staff are not given continued access to free tests, should they develop potential Covid symptoms there is a strong risk that they could attend when they are infected and transmit it to others, or stay away from the classroom with symptoms which may not be the coronavirus at all.”
The shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson, said: “Families want to be confident that after two years of chaos and disruption their children can fully participate in education and experiences without worrying about costs.”
“As the Conservatives’ cost of living crisis is hitting people’s pockets it couldn’t be clearer that ending free testing in schools now is the wrong decision at the wrong time.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We are now moving to living with – and managing – the virus, while maintaining the population’s wall of protection and communicating safer behaviours that the public can follow to manage risk. Decisions on testing will be outlined in due course.”
The offer of a Covid vaccination is due to be extended to the parents of children aged five to 11 this spring, though no date has yet been set for the programme to be rolled out.
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