All students in secondary schools in England should return to wearing masks in the classroom, ministers said last night, as concerns grow that the new term could lead to a spike in cases of the Omicron variant.
The new advice came amid growing criticism of the government for failing to ensure the availability of Covid testing kits in time to return to schools and workplaces after the Christmas holidays.
The Department of Education said the advice was “only short-term to support pupils and teachers as they return to school this term” and will remain in effect until January 26, when it is reviewed.
However, there is growing concern among scientists and the medical profession that there could be another rapid rise in infections, particularly in England, where the rules for socializing over Christmas and New Years have been more relaxed.
Yesterday, the number of confirmed cases in England was a record high of 162,572.
The lack of testing equipment also increases staffing problems across public services. The government has asked all public schools to conduct an on-site test for pupils before classes start this week.
As ministers desperately tried to avoid sparking a new mood of national crisis with school closures, Education Minister Nadim Zahawi also announced that an additional 7,000 air-cleaning units would be made available to schools and colleges to improve ventilation in classrooms.
In addition, many school inspections at Ofsted will be delayed in the first weeks of the new semester.
With Boris Johnson under renewed pressure over dealing with the pandemic, Zahawi said everything was being done to ensure that young people’s education did not suffer again.
“The prime minister and I have made it clear that education is our number one priority,” he said. “These measures will enhance our support for schools as we do everything we can to reduce disruption.”
Labor leader Keir Starmer told Foreman That the government’s failure to subsidize test supplies in response to Omicron’s emergence in November was “unforgivable”.
Starmer said parents should test their children at least twice a week to make sure they haven’t spread the disease to the elderly and most vulnerable, and it’s up to the government to make sure tests are available for them to do so.
“Schools will return next week, and in the past this has seen the spread of Covid among children, who then return to their families,” the Labor leader said. “As cases begin to rise in the most vulnerable age groups, concern is also growing for our elderly population. The government’s failure to prepare means it must now prioritize those who urgently need testing, so it can bring supply back to demand levels.
He said Labor’s priorities would be to protect the learning, the vulnerable, emergency services and critical infrastructure. “Schools should remain open, because children have already lost a lot of learning.”
Jeff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, welcomed the advice on wearing masks.
Face coverings are already recommended in public areas for pupils in grade 7 and above. Pupils are accustomed to using them and we are sure that reusing face coverings in the classroom is something that schools and colleges will take in their stride.”
Earlier last year, high school students in England were required to wear masks in classrooms at the high point of infection, although this was dropped when it slowed in the spring.
Before last night’s announcement, some high schools were already taking unilateral measures, writing to parents saying masks should be worn in classrooms as part of efforts to avoid school closures.
In another sign of growing concern, payments worth hundreds of pounds are being offered to encourage former teachers to sign up for a government-inspired drive to provide cover for schools struggling with high levels of absenteeism.
Supply agencies promise to offer cash or shopping vouchers to anyone who successfully “refers a friend.” Agencies advertise a ‘call to arms’ through online advertisements offering minimum salary rates of around £130 a day.
An ad for Axcis Education reads: “If you’re not interested…but you know someone else who might…we offer shopping vouchers of up to £250 if you refer a friend to us and we put them on the job.”
With the full effects of Omicron still unclear, a leading expert in infectious diseases, Professor Mark Woolhouse from the University of Edinburgh, said a return to another full lockdown should be ruled out.
“There is not yet a good case for a full lockdown. Lockdowns are not a public health policy. They are indicative of a failure of public health policy,” he said.
“If we end up there again, it will be because we haven’t gotten the public health messaging right, because we’ve failed to protect the vulnerable and because we haven’t ordered enough test kits – something we should have caught up with at the beginning of the month when it was clear that Omicron would lead to a significant increase in the number of cases.
In an interview with ForemanWoolhouse added: “This was an epidemic that calls for a rigorous approach to public health and the opposite has happened. We have done grave harm to our children and youth, who have been robbed of their education, jobs and normal livelihoods, as well as damage to their future prospects, while left to inherit a record mountain of public debt. “.
He added, “In general, I hope we can quickly learn not to be surprised by the new variants and not to respond to each in an ad hoc manner.”
Dan Poulter, MP, a former health minister who also works as an NHS psychiatrist, said it was “unacceptable” that we were now facing a test shortage, suggesting lessons had not been learned. Poulter, the Conservative MP, said ministers should ensure there was a permanent reservoir of PPE and testing equipment “as part of a national pandemic response reserve”.