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UK Government looking at coronavirus testing for pupils to allow return to school

By Harriet Line and Eleanor Busby, PA

The Government is looking at how coronavirus testing of pupils could help the return to school amid reports that parents may become responsible for tests, a health minister has confirmed.

Helen Whately said there is “work in progress” after being questioned about reports that parents could be asked to test their children at home twice a week.

She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There is work being done to look at how testing will help schools come back. But there will be more details set out about that next week.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson will outline his “road map” out of lockdown on Monday after spending the week analysing data on coronavirus cases, deaths and hospital admissions.

The school leaders’ union said it has “accepted” that the return of secondary school pupils may need to be staggered due to mass testing.

Ms Whately, asked about the Telegraph’s report that parents of secondary school children will be asked to administer rapid flow tests during term time, said: “I’m not going to get drawn into that.”

But she went on: “There is work in progress looking at how testing can support schools to come back.

“There’s already testing going on in schools, where you have children of key workers and teachers in schools at the moment, because schools aren’t completely closed, and there is work going on at the moment about the details of the return to schools, and there will be more said about that next week.”

Ms Whately also said she wants visits to care homes to be allowed before residents receive their second dose of a coronavirus vaccine.

She told Sky News: “I really, really want to open up visiting in care homes more.

“To be clear, we have made sure that visiting can continue even during this national lockdown but I recognise it’s not the normal kind of visiting – it’s having to use screens, or visiting pods, or through windows of care homes that don’t have those facilities.

“Also, we have put funding into social care to help care homes have these facilities, and have extra staff if they need to supervise. What I want to do as we come out of the national lockdown is also increase the amount of visiting.

“I don’t see that we have to wait for the second vaccination dose, I want us to open up sooner than that.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “It’s accepted that secondary school pupils might have to return in a slightly staggered way because of the logistics of mass testing.

“If they come back into the classroom all at the same time, they would have to be taken out of class for the tests to take place by which time they will have already mixed.

“So it would make more sense for them to be brought back into school in phases and tested as they return.”

Mr Barton said this idea was being discussed with Government, but no final decision had yet been made about what will happen from March 8.

He told BBC News that the idea of testing being done at home was not “entirely new”, but he added that he did not know how parents would respond to the reports that they could be asked to test their children twice a week.

When asked whether he supported the idea that secondary schools and colleges would no longer be responsible for testing pupils throughout term, Mr Barton said: “We have always said as school and college leaders that our expertise is in education rather than setting up field hospitals.

“If you’re saying that it’s useful initially to do that, it builds reassurance to do the testing but then we can concentrate on the education, then that is something we would strongly endorse.”

In other developments:

– A further 738 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Wednesday, while there were another 12,718 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK.

– Government figures showed 15,940,972 people have received coronavirus vaccines in the UK, a rise of 364,865 on the previous day.

– Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the latest report from the National Records of Scotland (NRS) indicated that vaccinations are reducing the death toll from coronavirus.

– A leaked Government document, seen by the Guardian, said England’s most deprived communities had been hit by a “perfect storm” of wage, housing and testing-and-trace issues that led to high coronavirus rates.

Meanwhile, major research showed lockdown measures are significantly driving down infection levels across the nation, but that they remain high and at similar levels to those observed in late September.

Imperial College London’s React study, which tested more than 85,000 people in England between February 4 and 13, suggested infections have dropped to just one in 200 people.

The study suggested infections are halving every 15 days, and the R number – which expresses how many people the average infected individual spreads the virus to – is at 0.72.

But, with the number of Covid-19 patients in hospitals remaining higher than during the first wave last April, experts called for caution in easing restrictions.

Steven Riley, Imperial’s professor of infectious disease dynamics, said that “because prevalence is high, there essentially isn’t a lot of headroom – there isn’t a lot of leeway”.

Mr Johnson stressed on Wednesday that any easing of restrictions needs to be in stages and in an “irreversible” way.

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