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Boris Johnson is being urged to boost the government’s coronavirus test and trace to safely reopen schools next month.
Teachers and scientific experts have all called for improvements to testing before students return to school.
Children’s commissioner for England Anne Longfield said regular testing of pupils and teachers would need to be carried out as frequently as weekly to keep transmissions down.
“I think it needs to be as regular as it needs to be, to ensure that the infection is caught and identified as quickly as possible and then the tracking system can move on from that,” she told Times Radio.
The prime minister said it is a “national priority” and “moral duty” to reopen schools, but has been warned that “trade offs” may be necessary and that more restrictions may be needed to reopen classrooms in England next month.
He is understood to favour closing down pubs, restaurants and shops ahead of schools in the event of severe coronavirus flare-ups.
Longfield has previously accused the government of treating children as “an afterthought”.
But schools minister Nick Gibb has said the government cannot “decree” that classroom education would be prioritised, instead saying decisions would be made by local health chiefs.
He told the BBC all children would be returning next month including in areas hit by local lockdowns, which currently includes Preston, Greater Manchester, Leicester and parts of east Lancashire and West Yorkshire.
“But you can’t decree this for every single case and it will depend on the circumstances of a local increase in the infection rate, and that is why it is being led by the director of public health in localities. But we want all children back in school,” he added.
Professor Sir Jeremy Farrar, who is advising the government’s Covid-19 response, said the “brief window” before schools reopen must be “used wisely”, otherwise new restrictions will be needed.
“Most urgently, we need to ramp up testing. We are not where we need to be. We must improve contact tracing, so we’re identifying more cases and providing better, faster data locally,” he wrote in the Observer.
“If we don’t, we may not be able to reopen schools without introducing new restrictions elsewhere. These are the trade-offs we face – if we do not act now.”
News agency PA reported a No.10 source saying on Saturday that Johnson’s expectation is that schools would be the last sector to close, with firms being shut first in the event of severe local lockdowns.
“The PM has been clear that businesses including shops, pubs and restaurants should be forced to close first, with schools remaining open for as long as possible,” the source said.
National Education Union (NEU) deputy general secretary, Avis Gilmore, said ministers must “be clear” about support in the case of a second wave.
“Robust track, trace and test alongside health and safety checks in schools and colleges are necessary,” she said.
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