The contradictory chaos at the heart of the Government’s Covid policies has been brought into sharp focus by the sudden announcement that mass testing of secondary school students is going to be rushed out in North-East London and parts of Essex and Kent.
There’s no question that regular mass testing of school students and staff is needed. It’s a demand that the NEU raised as one of our ‘5 tests’ for Covid-safety in schools back in May. But why is mass testing only being considered now and why only in these few areas?
The waves of Covid transmission have been peaking in different areas at different times. A few weeks ago, infection rates in the North of England were much higher than in the South. However, official statistics show that it’s now London where rates are rising fastest, particularly amongst school-aged children. For example, Basildon, Medway and Waltham Forest are all reporting infection rates of over 500/100,000 in 10-14 year olds.
Like some Tory ‘King Canute’, Matt Hancock hopes rushing out mobile testing units can stop the rising tide washing over London and the South-East. But, once again, instead of a properly resourced plan, he’s resorting to half-baked measures.
The practicalities of making sure that schoolchildren in the targeted areas are all tested are far from straightforward. No doubt exhausted and overstretched school staff will again be expected to try and help bring some order to Tory chaos. Testing this late in term also means that children testing positive will then have to self-isolate with their families over the Christmas period that the Government has supposedly ‘saved’ from Covid restrictions.
Worse, Ministers still can’t bring themselves to admit to what is now surely blindingly obvious. If school-aged children are so widely infected, insisting that parents send them in to classes of thirty in badly-ventilated classrooms inevitably means that schools will be acting as a significant driver of wider community transmission. Sadly, of course, that means a driver of Covid-related deaths too.
Many schools have been so badly hit by Covid outbreaks that they are already stretched to breaking point through staff and student absences. Yet, on the same day these mass tests were being announced, one such badly hit school in one of the targeted London boroughs was ordered to withdraw its plans to manage the situation by finishing term with just remote learning.
As parents and staff in the hard-hit North have understandably pointed out with anger, Government failure to organise widespread mass testing in other regions has already left thousands of families vulnerable. Some of their children will have been returning home from school untested, probably without symptoms, but still infectious. When, for example, will mass testing be rolled out in Hartlepool, where infection rates amongst 10-14 year-olds are also over 500/100,000?
But Government failure mustn’t be allowed to stoke regional divisions. Regular mass testing of children should be happening in every area. The risk of transmission should also be being kept down through a properly resourced plan for safer reduced class sizes, with some children being supported to learn from home on a rota basis where necessary, certainly in those areas with the highest infection rates. Parents and carers who are left without childcare should be paid in full if they have to remain at home as a result.
Of course, these demands aren’t new. Trade unions and parent campaigns have been calling for action to reduce infection risks in schools for months. Instead of just pleading with Ministers who refuse to listen, what’s needed is action to make sure they are forced to see sense.
The NEU should follow the lead taken by the EIS teaching trade union in Glasgow and prepare members for ballots for strike action where employers continue to refuse to act to protect health and safety.