Keeping schools open is becoming “unsustainable” unless the Government fixes the Covid testing crisis, ministers were warned today.
More than 300 schools have already been partially or completely closed because of proven or suspected coronavirus cases, and school leaders say they are facing staffing issues as teachers are forced to stay away while they wait for a test.
Teachers and parents are now worried they will be put towards the back of the testing queue after Health Secretary Matt Hancock admitted Covid-19 tests may have to be rationed.
Parents have also reported driving for hours to get a test for their symptomatic child in order to get them back into school.
Academy chain Oasis Community Learning, which runs a number of schools in London, said 1,200 pupils had been sent home over the first six days of the new school year.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, warned that keeping schools open will become “unsustainable” if issues with testing capacity are not fixed.
He said some school leaders felt “hoodwinked” after they strived to get schools reopened but are now unable to get tests for their pupils or staff.
He also said heads were “infuriated” and faced with making decisions about whether entire bubbles needed to stay at home and waiting hours for public health advice.
Mr Barton told BBC’s Radio 4 Today Programme: “This will feel like lockdown by default. It will be more frustrating for parents because you can’t predict whether it’s going to happen.
“What we really need are those tests and we need them now. Teachers need to be counted as key workers in order that you can at least keep that maths teacher in front of 30 young people if their test is negative.”
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland today said the Government was facing “real challenges” on coronavirus testing and suggested that school children and parents would be the next testing priority after NHS and social care workers.
He told Sky News a “prioritisation system” was the “right thing to do” and added: “[Mr Hancock] is going to develop that very quickly over the next few days, to explain to us what that looks like but I think… it has to be the NHS first and then social care.
“And then I think what we need to do is have a cascading system where we know where our priority should be and for me priority should be for children in school and their parents in order to ensure their lives are safe and also importantly they are not disrupted in the way we are seeing.”
Mr Hancock told MPs that he would not “shirk from decisions about prioritisation”, with NHS patients and staff top of his list, followed by care homes.
Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, said: “Schools appear to be seeking to do their utmost to carry on.
“However, we have reports that schools are unable to cope with a situation that is becoming increasingly out of control.”
Lib Dem MP Munira Wilson wrote to Mr Hancock today, warning that headteachers are having to make medical decisions on whether to turn away students because they cannot access tests.
She added: “It seems clear to us that, unless urgent action is taken, schools will have no choice other than to close.”
Mr Hancock told MPs: “I do not shirk from decisions about prioritisation. They’re not always comfortable, but they are important.
“The top priority is and always has been acute clinical care. The next priority is social care, where we’re now sending over 100,000 tests a day because we’ve all seen the risks this virus poses in care homes.”
Government sources said it was not a new approach and they would not be restricting tests. They said the order of priority had been developed in case there are further issues with demand outstripping supply.
Mr Hancock is expected to publish a priority list today.