‘Time is running out’. Education union issues stark warning on coronavirus testing crisis.

a classroom
Jasmine Norden

The National Education Union (NEU) has called for immediate government action on the UK’s testing crisis.

Leaders of the union wrote to the prime minister on 20 September to urge the adoption of emergency measures to maintain the safety of schools.

General secretaries of the NEU, Dr Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, asked that school children and teaching staff become a testing priority to contain coronavirus (Covid-19) cases in schools.

They said that schools do not currently have the means to stop the spread of cases without consistent testing. Many students and teachers have also been forced to stay at home while they wait for a test.

In the letter to the government, Bousted and Courtney said:

School leaders, teachers and support staff have supported the wider opening for all pupils and worked hard to make it as safe as possible, but you cannot, and must not, take this support for granted.

You must show that the virus levels will be able to fall again and that you have a plan for education that is sustainable in the mid to long term, not just for tomorrow.

The testing crisis

This comes in the wake of continued chaos with the UK’s testing system. Dido Harding, head of NHS Test and Trace, told MPs on 17 September that demand for tests is at three or four times capacity.

A survey found that four in five schools in England have children absent at the moment while they wait for a coronavirus test.

Despite the original 24-hour target for coronavirus test results, data from the Department of Health & Social Care shows that less than two-thirds of people were receiving a result within this window for in-person tests in the week before 9 September. Test turnaround times became longer for both in-person and at home tests when compared to the previous week.

From 8 September to 14 September, the median distance travelled for a coronavirus test was 5.8 miles. This was a slight improvement from a median of 6.4 miles the week before.

‘A critical moment’

The Office for National Statistics estimated that coronavirus cases in England are now reaching 6000 new infections a day from 4 September to 10 September.

Many areas around the UK are currently under extra measures to prevent the spread of the virus. This includes people in Greater Manchester, Birmingham, and the north-east of England. New restrictions will come into place in parts of the country from 22 September. These include parts of West Yorkshire, the Midlands and some north-west of England. And on 22 September, Boris Johnson is announcing new measures for England, including a 10pm closing time for restaurants and pubs.

Despite rising cases, schools remain open across the UK.

Ahead of schools opening, UK chief medical adviser Chris Whitty said in a press conference on 22 August that it was “possible that opening schools will provide enough upward pressure on R that it goes above 1 having previously been below it, at least in some local areas.”

The latest estimated R-rate in the UK is between 1.1 and 1.4.

‘A matter of urgency’

The NEU proposed that steps should be taken to reduce transmission in schools if testing cannot be brought up to scratch.

The education union recommended several courses of action. It called for the limiting of class sizes to contain transmission, clarity on this year’s exams, and the provision of laptops and broadband for students who have no means to learn online. The union further suggested that ‘Nightingale Schools’ should be created to ensure children miss as little of their contact time as possible.

The NEU is the largest teaching union in Europe. It represents over 450,000 people across the United Kingdom.

Bousted and Courtney warned:

Time is running out and the Government must act now.

Featured image via Allison Meier/Flickr

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