The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, has said he is “absolutely confident” that secondary schools will be able to run a mass Covid testing regime with an extra week to prepare.
Speaking on morning television, Williamson said £78m of extra funding, equipment such as personal protective equipment (PPE) and support from the military would help get the programmes set up. “There’s absolutely no reason that schools won’t be ready.”
Asked if a week was enough time to prepare for a functioning mass testing system, Williamson said: “We are absolutely confident that it is; we’ll be seeing all the testing equipment that is needed for schools being delivered on 4 January, schools have already had notice of the guidance of what they need to do, they’ve also had notification of the extra £78m that we’re offering.
“In terms of secondary year groups, the reason that we have moved that [term start] back is so we give all schools, every single school, every single college that teaches secondary-age pupils, the opportunity to roll out a mass testing regime, making sure we root out this coronavirus,” he told Sky News. “It’s not just about making it safer for pupils, it’s not just about making it safer for those who work in schools, but actually it’s about rooting out coronavirus in our communities and we did need to give schools a little bit extra time.”
The education secretary said 1,500 members of the armed forces would be supporting schools in “exceptional cases” that were facing problems.
Asked why teachers were not prioritised for Covid-19 vaccines, he said: “As you’re well aware, we’ve prioritised in that first wave of vaccines those people who are most vulnerable, who are most likely to be in a position of being hospitalised as a result of catching Covid-19.
“I think we all recognise where the first vaccines need to go, to those who are most likely to lose their lives as a result of catching Covid.”
Asked directly whether teachers should be prioritised like healthcare workers, he said: “In future waves, obviously, this is a decision that will be made across government. It would be great to see more teachers right up there getting the vaccine, but it’s got to be made on clinical judgment as to how best we deal with and beat this virus.”
Williamson also outlined some of the reasoning behind the government’s plans to reopen a proportion of primary schools, with more than 85% due to open next week.
He told Sky News: “The work that was done with the Department of Health, who identified areas where it was either a very high rate or, using their latest data, were seeing very sharp increases in the number of cases or equally the pressures on hospitals in that area and the clinical needs.
“These were all the considerations that were taken into account but what I want to say, and this will come as no surprise to you whatsoever, I want to see schools, any school, that’s closed for those first two weeks, opening at the earliest possible opportunity.”