UNISON’s national schools committee for England, together with representatives of the union’s further education committee, met with Department for Education (DfE) and NHS test and trace officials yesterday to discuss the government’s plans for mass testing of school staff and pupils in secondary schools and colleges in England in January.
Among many issues, the committee highlighted concerns about the reliability of the proposed tests, numbers and roles of staff that would be involved, potential increased workloads, proper training, availability of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), face coverings and the roll out of the programme to primary and special schools.
The committee was clear that, while the union supports the use of mass testing in schools, because of concerns with the high rate of false negative lateral flow test results, this test should not be used as an alternative to self-isolation of close contacts and bubbles following conformed COVID-19 cases.
The British Medical Journal, World Health Organisation, Royal Society of Statisticians and Royal College of Pathologists have all warned that these tests can miss a substantial proportion of cases and should not be used alone to identify the infection.
Also, government figures from a mass testing pilot in Liverpool, in over 5,000 people without symptoms, showed that up to half of positives were missed, which included up to 30% who had high viral loads and so had a higher risk of infecting others.
Recent press reports have also suggested that some of these community-based pilots may be suspended while further analysis is carried out.
Because of this, UNISON calls on the DfE not to rush ahead with the programme in January, but to work with schools on a sensible timetable.
It is also vital that the department amends its mass testing guidance to make clear that schools should use testing only as an additional measure to identify potential asymptotic cases and not as an alternative to self-isolation of all close contacts and bubbles.
Department communications should also explain that the lateral flow test cannot confirm that an individual has not been infected with COVID-19, as this could lead to a false sense of security by people who test negative, which could lead them to unintentionally spread the virus.
UNISON is also calling on the DfE to advise schools to continue on-line learning in January beyond the first week currently proposed. Full re-opening should only start when schools and local public health authorities are satisfied that local infection rates are at levels that makes it safe for staff, pupils and communities to return.
The union continues to call on the Westminster government to rapidly expand the provision of laptop and internet access to ensure that all pupils have access to online learning.
The schools committee previously agreed several points about the issue. For further detail, click here.