Under-fire Gavin Williamson today broke cover to guarantee every school in England will be supplied with coronavirus home tests to hand out to parents when they reopen next week.
The Education Secretary used an interview to pledge that teachers would be able to send ill children home with a fast-result kit so that a family member can use it to quickly determine whether they have Covid-19.
Under guidance issued by the Department for Education, if the child tests negative for the virus they can quickly return to school with the minimum of disruption.
If they test positive they quarantine at home while the school takes steps to limit the spread.
The Government has stepped up its efforts to persuade parents to send their children back to the classroom in September and Mr Williamson said this afternoon it is the ‘right time’ for students to resume their classes.
He also insisted schools will only close again following localised outbreaks as an ‘absolute last resort’.
But he remains under intense pressure after his handling of the Government’s A-level and GCSE results fiasco.
Asked if he could guarantee that all schools in England will get the testing kits by the time they reopen next week, Mr Williamson replied: ‘Yes.’
Gavin Williamson today guaranteed that all schools in England will have home testing kits to give out to parents when they reopen next week
Mr Williamson is under massive pressure over a slew of education cock-ups this summer which have sparked calls to quit
Mr Williamson has said he wants to continue in the role long into the future but there was fresh speculation over his position at the weekend after it was claimed he had cancelled a key meeting to go on holiday to Scarborough the week before the exams crisis.
His intervention today came after Boris Johnson issued a plea to parents to send their children back to the classroom as he said he knew some were ‘still a bit worried’ about the restart.
He said it is ‘vital’ for pupil’s physical and mental health that they go back and that the risk of children catching the disease is ‘very, very, very small’ and the risk of them suffering badly from it is ‘very, very, very, very, very small indeed’.
Meanwhile, deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries said pupils are more likely to be hit by a bus on their way to school than catch coronavirus in the classroom.
Dr Harries said the risk of children being involved in a traffic accident or of catching the flu are ‘probably higher than the current risk’ posed by the deadly virus.
The Government said in its school reopening guidance that ‘by the autumn term, all schools will be provided with a small number of home testing kits that they can give directly to parents/carers collecting a child who has developed symptoms at school’.
The kits will also be available to staff who have developed symptoms while at work.
However, some head teachers have reported that they still have not received the tests, just a matter of days before they are supposed to reopen.
He was also asked whether he expected schools to be shut in the event of a localised outbreak of the virus.
He told ITV: ‘We would expect to see schools closed as the very last resort. We know that children have missed out on so much by not being in school.
‘We know that children have missed being with their friends and being with their teachers and having the opportunity to learn in wonderful classrooms such as this.
Huge Covid outbreak shuts Dundee school
Seventeen staff and two pupils have tested positive for coronavirus at a school in Dundee just two weeks after schools in Scotland reopened following lockdown.
All staff and children at Kingspark School in Dundee, which reopened along with other schools in Scotland on August 12, have been told to self-isolate for two weeks.
NHS Tayside confirmed positive cases among three ‘community contacts’ linked to the cluster at the school, which has about 185 pupils aged between five and 18. It has now been closed until at least next week in order to undergo a deep clean.
All pupils at the school, which was purpose built in 2009, have additional support needs – with many also having additional physical disabilities or medical problems.
Kingspark School was closed last Wednesday and all parents received a joint letter from the local council and NHS at the end of last week to keep them updated.
‘So we would see schools closing as the absolute last resort.’
Mr Williamson said the Government has asked teachers to plan to be able to educate children from home if a school has to be closed.
‘We’ve seen in Leicester, where there was a local lockdown, when action does need to be taken more widely than just that school, we will be willing to do that,’ he said.
‘In our guidance, what we’ve asked schools to do is make sure that they are planning to ensure that actually children do not miss out on their education if they’re not in school and they are continuing to educate when they’re at home.’
Mr Williamson added: ‘At every stage, we’ve followed the advice of chief medical officers and we saw just at the weekend the chief medical officers for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland saying it is now safe for youngsters to return back to school and actually there’s more harm done to those youngsters by them not being in school.
‘That’s why it’s the right time for children to come back.’
Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jenny Harries says pupils are more likely to be hit by a bus than catch Covid
Pupils are more likely to be hit by a bus on their way to school than catch coronavirus in the classroom, the deputy chief medical officer claimed today.
Dr Jenny Harries said the risk of children being involved in a traffic accident or of catching the flu are ‘probably higher than the current risk’ posed by the deadly virus.
Meanwhile, Education Minister Nick Gibb this morning insisted parents will be fined if they refuse to send their children back to school next week.
He also said the Government is sticking by its advice to teachers that they do not need to wear masks despite a growing row with unions over staff safety.
Public Health England data has shown that teachers are more likely to be infected than their pupils, after one in 23,000 students tested positive during the partial reopening of schools before the summer holidays.
Boris Johnson, fresh from his holiday to Scotland last week, today issued a plea to parents to send their children back to the classroom when schools reopen in England at the start of September.
The Prime Minister said in a video posted on his Twitter account that he knew some parents were ‘still a bit worried’ about sending children back to school but he insisted it is ‘vital’ for pupil’s physical and mental health.
He said the risk of children catching the disease is ‘very, very, very small’ and the risk of them suffering badly from it is ‘very, very, very, very, very small indeed’.
The Government remains under pressure over its handling of the return of schools with Tory MPs today complaining ministers have left it ‘very late’ to persuade parents it is safe.
Mr Williamson was facing fresh scrutiny after he reportedly cancelled a key meeting to go on holiday in Scarborough the week before the A-level exams fiasco, according to The Sunday Times.
The Education Secretary addressed the claims in a tweet as he said he had been in ‘constant communication’ with officials while he was away.
He said: ‘I cancelled our family holiday abroad this year to focus on the challenges COVID-19 created for the education sector.
‘Over the summer, I went to see family in Scarborough for the first time since lockdown, and while there I was in constant communication with the Department.’
Many pupils in England have not been to class since March, when schools were closed except to look after vulnerable children and those of key workers.
Schools in Scotland reopened earlier this month, while those in Northern Ireland will welcome pupils again on Monday. English and Welsh schools will follow suit in September.
The Government today stepped up its efforts to prepare for the return of pupils as Dr Harries suggested the risk coronavirus poses to pupils is actually very small.
Public Health England data showed the partial reopening of schools before the summer holidays resulted in just one in 23,000 children catching coronavirus.
Some 70 children tested positive out of more than 1.6 million who were in class, with many confirmed as having the disease actually being asymptomatic.
But some 128 staff members tested positive, with most transmission believed to have taken place between adults.
However, while staff are more likely to be infected than pupils they are no more likely to be infected than the general population.
The Government’s handling of the schools return, and last week’s debacle over A-level and GCSE results, has sparked Tory MP fury.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative leader, told The Telegraph schools and parents needed a ‘clear message’ that it is ‘completely safe to return’.
‘They have left it very late and the debacle of exam results means parents don’t trust the Government any more,’ he said.
Sir Iain urged Mr Johnson to ‘lead, galvanising his inner Churchill’ in order to reverse the Government’s fortunes.
Mr Johnson is urging parents to send their children back to school and in a video posted on his Twitter account this morning, he said it is ‘absolutely vital’ that classes restart full time across England next week.
‘It is vital for their education, it is vital for their welfare, it is vital for their physical and indeed their mental wellbeing, so let’s make sure all pupils get back to school at the beginning of September,’ he said.
‘I think parents are genuinely still a bit worried about their children contracting coronavirus.
‘All I can say is the risks are very, very, very small that they will even get it but then the risks that they will suffer from it badly are very, very, very, very, very small indeed.’
The PM had said in a statement issued overnight that there is a ‘moral duty to reopen schools to all pupils safely’.
The UK’s chief medical officers yesterday issued a joint statement seeking to reassure parents that it is safe to send their children back to school.
They said ‘very few, if any’ children and teenagers would come to long-term harm from the virus solely by attending school, while there was a ‘certainty’ of harm from not returning.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Mr Johnson’s commitment to get all children back to school was at ‘serious risk’ after a ‘week of chaos’ over exam results.
Face masks chaos as Nicola Sturgeon prepares to order children to wear them in Scottish school corridors and communal areas – while Boris rules them OUT for English teachers and pupils
Nicola Sturgeon today signalled secondary school pupils and staff in Scotland will be asked to wear face masks when they travel between classes – as Number 10 ruled out a similar move in England.
The Scottish First Minister said her government is consulting on exactly when and where the coverings will be required as she cited concerns about ventilation issues in corridors and communal areas.
However, Downing Street said there are ‘no plans’ for the UK Government to change its approach to the issue in England.
The Prime Minister’s deputy official spokesman said the wearing of masks would risk ‘obstructing communication’ while ministers insisted face coverings are ‘not necessary’ if guidance on school hygiene is followed.
The difference in approach is likely to cause confusion among parents and pupils as all four of the home nations try to get schools back up and running.
Nicola Sturgeon told her daily coronavirus briefing that her government is consulting on requiring pupils to wear face masks when travelling between classes
Boris Johnson today issued a plea to parents to send their children back to school in England next week. Downing Street has ruled out forcing pupils and staff to wear masks
Education is a devolved issue which means the administrations in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can adopt their own policies.
The UK government’s current guidance for England does not recommend teachers or pupils should wear face masks.
But Ms Sturgeon told her daily coronavirus briefing that Scotland’s Education Secretary John Swinney is in the final stages of consulting with teachers and councils on the issue.
She said recommendations would not include pupils wearing masks while in the classroom.
The move follows requests from some schools north of the border for pupils to wear face coverings.
Ms Sturgeon said: ‘We’re consulting on this specific measure because, firstly, mixing between different groups is more likely in corridors and communal areas – increasing the potential for transmission.
‘Secondly, crowding and close contact in these areas is more likely and voices could be raised, resulting in greater potential for creating aerosol transmission.
‘Finally, there’s also less scope for ventilation in these areas.’
She said decisions are yet to be made on whether the guidance would apply to school transport and that decision will be made in the coming days.
Asked if the UK Government would follow Ms Sturgeon’s lead on the issue, the PM’s deputy official spokesman said: ‘There are no plans to review the guidance on face coverings in schools… we are conscious of the fact that it would obstruct communication between teachers and pupils.’
Earlier, the UK Government’s Schools Minister Nick Gibb had said masks are ‘not necessary’ for teachers or pupils.
He told the BBC: ‘We are always led by the scientific advice. What the current advice is is that if a school puts in place the measures that are in the guidance that we issued in early July, all of the hygiene pleasures I have been talking about, then masks are not necessary for staff or pupils.’
Asked if he believed the guidance could change, he said: ‘We always listen to whatever the current advice is from Public Health England, the chief medical officers, we always adhere to that advice.’
Unison is one a number of unions who have called for teachers to be allowed to wear a mask or face covering because of staff safety concerns.
‘It’s still unclear why government guidance won’t allow them, when they’re recommended for other workplaces,’ the union said.
The World Health Organisation and UN children’s agency Unicef advise that children aged 12 and over should wear a mask under the same conditions as adults, in particular when they cannot guarantee at least a one-metre distance from others and there is widespread transmission in the area.
England’s deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries said the evidence on whether children over 12 should wear masks in schools was ‘not strong’.
Dr Harries told Sky News that in children under 15 ‘compliance is very poor’ and other measures being taken in schools – such as children sitting side by side or back to back meant masks were not needed.
‘We also need to think through the sort of psychosocial effects of masks for children, it’s a learning environment, and we need them to learn for life,’ she added.
Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green said the issue of masks in schools should be kept under review.
The WHO and Unicef suggested that face shields may be an alternative in situations such as speech classes where the teacher and pupils need to see each other’s mouths.
The WHO/Unicef guidance states children aged five and under should not be required to wear masks.
For children aged six-11, consideration should be given to factors including whether there is widespread transmission and the potential impact of wearing a mask on learning and development.