Education secretary ‘absolutely confident’ schools will be able to roll out mass testing with extra week to prepare

Published: 31 December 2020

Post Desk : The education secretary has told Sky News he is “absolutely confident” that secondary schools will be able to carry out mass testing with an extra week to prepare.

Defending the decision to push back the return of pupils to secondary schools and colleges, Gavin Williamson told Sky News the move was about “rooting out coronavirus in our communities”.

And speaking as another 20 million people moved into Tier 4 COVID-19 restrictions, the education secretary said he was “confident” the country would not be moving into another national lockdown.

He announced on Wednesday that the phased reopening of secondary schools and colleges will be pushed back by a week, a move that was labelled a “last-minute mess” by teachers.

Students in exam years will now return from 11 January, with other secondary and college students going back a week later.

This is to allow schools and colleges to make preparations for the widespread testing of pupils and staff.

Mr Williamson told Sky News he was “absolutely confident” the extra time would be enough to allow them to be ready to roll out mass testing.

“In terms of secondary year groups, the reason that we have moved that back is so we give all schools, every single school, every single college that teaches secondary-age pupils the opportunity to roll out a mass testing regime, making sure we root out this coronavirus,” he said.

“It’s not just about making it safer for pupils, it’s not just about making it safer for those who work in schools, but actually it’s about rooting out coronavirus in our communities and we did need to give schools a little bit extra time.”

Mr Williamson added: “We’ll be seeing all the testing equipment that is needed for schools being delivered on the 4th January, schools have already had notice of the guidance of what they need to do, they’ve also had notification of the extra £78m that we’re offering.”

Meanwhile, around a million primary school pupils in some of the areas with the highest rates of COVID-19 will not go back to the classroom next week as planned, with no date yet set for their return.

This will include primaries in 22 London boroughs, which between them have more than half a million pupils, and many primaries in Essex and Kent and some in East Sussex, Buckinghamshire, and Hertfordshire.

Full list of areas where primary schools face delayed return

Mr Williamson said the measure will be reviewed on 13 January – and ministers want schools that are not open to be able to welcome back pupils as soon as possible.

“I want to see schools, any school, that’s closed for those first two weeks, opening at the earliest possible opportunity,” he said.

Mr Williamson added: “It’s not what any of us would want to do, it’s not a decision that any of us would be wanting to have to implement, but we’ve had to do that because circumstances have dictated it.

“I think the British public expect the government to do what is right and even though that is sometimes uncomfortable, it is taking the right actions, dealing with these extraordinary times.”

Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green said parents were facing “yet another eleventh hour U-turn” from the government on education because of its “failure” to “deliver on testing, and failure to control the virus”.

Joint general secretary of the National Education Union, Dr Mary Bousted, said she was “astonished” at the announcement.

“With warnings from eminent scientists of an ‘imminent catastrophe’ unless the whole of the UK is locked down, and with more cases in hospitals than ever before and our NHS facing an enormous crisis, the secretary of state is sending the majority of primary pupils and staff back on Monday to working environments which aren’t COVID secure,” she said.

Mr Williamson was speaking to Sky News as it was announced that the return of schools in Northern Ireland will be delayed by a week, with schools now delivering remote learning in the first week of term.

Asked why teachers have not been prioritised for vaccination against COVID-19, the education secretary said the government had prioritised “those people who are most vulnerable” in the first wave of jabs.

“I think we all recognise where the first vaccines need to go, to those who are most likely to lose their lives as a result of catching COVID,” Mr Williamson added.

He said that when it came to “future waves” off the vaccine rollout, “I’ll be wanting to see teachers and all those support staff being up there on that list getting that vaccine”.

Mr Williamson added: “It’d be great to see more teachers right up there getting the vaccine, but it’s got to be made on clinical judgment as to how best we deal with and beat this virus.”