Military personnel are on standby to support secondary schools and colleges across England to roll out COVID-19 testing to students and staff when the new term begins in January.
The armed forces deployment across England builds on school testing pilots in November and December.
Some 1,500 UK Armed Forces personnel are being made available to support the Department for Education and Department for Health and Social Care to roll out the testing to secondary schools and colleges across England.
The majority of personnel will form local response teams, providing support and phone advice to institutions needing guidance on the testing process and set-up of the facilities.
This will be done mostly through webinars and individual meetings, but teams will also be on standby to deploy at short notice to provide in-person support if needed. Schools and colleges will shortly be provided with further information on how to request additional support.
A small team of planners at the Department for Health and Social care is supporting the Department for Education to help coordinate the support. The majority of personnel will be on task from this week as they start to conduct training.
‘UK Armed Forces’
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said: “The UK Armed Forces are stepping up once again this holiday. This week I have authorised over 1,000 Armed Forces personnel to assist schools returning after the Christmas break.
“They’ll share considerable experience of testing across the country and the successful school pilots conducted this autumn. We are grateful for the professionalism and commitment they and our colleagues in teaching are showing to get students back into the classroom and on with their education.”
Every secondary school and college in England is being offered testing, with £78 million funding for schools and colleges to support the offer.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “It is a true cross-government effort to make sure secondary schools and colleges have the support, guidance, materials and funding they need to offer rapid testing to their staff and students from the start of term.
“I am grateful to the armed forces personnel, and all the school and college staff, leaders and volunteers working to put testing in place. This will help break chains of transmission, fight the virus, and help deliver the national priority of keeping education open for all.”
Students will be expected to swab themselves in the vast majority of cases, under the supervision of a school staff member or volunteer who has been trained for the role. Teachers are not expected to take a role in the testing process.
Support is being provided through the Military Aid to Civil Authorities (MACA) process. There are currently around 2914 personnel committed to 55 tasks to support other government departments and civil authorities with the response to coronavirus. This includes support with community testing across the UK, the provision of ambulance drivers in Wales and testing support for hauliers in Kent.
However, there are growing calls to delay the reopening of schools amid rising covid rates and the spread of a newer, more infectious strain.
Health campaigners have sent an open letter to Thanet’s MPs urging them to change the plans for the opening of schools in early January.
The letter from Save Our NHS in Kent (SONIK) says: “At the very least locally, schools cannot proceed back next week as they are (if they are to open at all!).Smaller class sizes in larger and better ventilated areas need to be arranged.”
The letter also calls for churches, church halls and community centres to be used to avoid overcrowding and large class numbers, with distance and blended learning to be employed to cut down attendance.
North Thanet MP Sir Roger Gale has also contacted the Prime Minister’s office with his concerns about reopening of schools.
He said: “Teachers, school staff and parents need a clear and definitive statement that schools will not be required to reopen in January until effective vaccination is made available to teaching staff.
“Education is important but so are the lives and wellbeing of teachers and key working parents need time to plan for the care of their children.”
He asks the PM to make a statement in Parliament tomorrow (December 30).
South Thanet MP Craig Mackinlay said schools need to remain open but staff should be prioritised for vaccination.
He said: “I appreciate concerns being raised about transmissibility of Covid within schools but there appears to be a continuing thread amongst those who air these fears – a desire to lock everything down, cease education and close the economy.
“I suspect a heavy dose of hard left politics at play by many of these new armchair specialists. The proposal by SONIK amplifies this with their call to deprive children of vital education for an unknown period until a wide rollout of vaccinations can be achieved. Additionally, with school closures comes the inability of many parents to work, putting more livelihoods at risk.
“I prefer to be honest with the public: even under a generous assessment of the logistics involved, widespread vaccinations will take some months to achieve governed by vaccine supply, the number of locations and trained vaccinators available.
“We must take precautions and manage risk in the interim just as all who work across healthcare, retail and deliveries have done throughout the pandemic to keep the country safe and provided for.
“Teachers are similarly doing essential work to ensure that the impact on education, a most precious resource, is not adversely impacted. I do however agree with many MP colleagues that teachers and school staff should be further prioritised in the earliest phase of vaccinations.”
The Joint General Secretaries of the National Education Union have also written to the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Education asking for Government to share the evidence and advice they are receiving about school openings including over the decision to overrule Greenwich council in the run up to Christmas.
The NEU Joint General Secretaries have also reiterated their call on the Prime Minister to keep schools and colleges closed for at least the first two weeks in January, with online learning except for vulnerable children and the children of key workers.
Primary pupils and students in Years 11-13 are due to return to class on January 4. Before Christmas government announced secondary students would have staggered returns to school as covid testing takes place.