Government “sat on its hands” over anti-Covid school measures, Green says

Elliot Chappell
© James Jiao/shutterstock.com

Kate Green has accused the government of having “sat on its hands” in relation to preparing schools with the measures needed to lessen the spread of Covid ahead of the start of the autumn term this week.

In an interview with the BBC this afternoon, the Shadow Education Secretary told viewers that the Labour Party has been “pleading for months for a range of measures to be available in schools”, which she said are still not in place.

“The government is only just beginning to roll out monitoring systems. Monitoring systems don’t freshen the air, they simply tell you if there’s a problem,” Green said.

“We’ve known since 467 days ago, when [the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] first said that ventilation systems were important, that these would be needed in schools. Why has the government delayed?”

SAGE warned that it is “highly likely” that there will be high levels of Covid seen in schools by the end of the month, adding in a statement issued on August 11th that it would be “sensible” for the government to plan for this happening.

“The government’s solution seems to be that lessons should be done outside but that is going to be extremely impractical, I would suggest, in November and December when it’s cold and dark and wet,” the Shadow Education Secretary added.

Asked four times this morning about whether schools should use outdoor lessons, Gavin Williamson told BBC Radio 4’s Today listeners that it is “certainly not something we’d be expecting to see an awful lot of”, but refused to rule it out.

He also would not comment on rising cases on Sky News this morning, saying only: “This is why we’re doing the testing programme and we’re encouraging children to take part in it, parents, and of course teachers and support staff as well.

“This is a way of rooting out Covid. We’re trying to strike that constant, sensible balance of actually giving children as normal an experience in the classroom as possible, but also recognising we’re still dealing with a global pandemic.”

Face masks in schools and classroom “bubbles” are no longer mandatory in England as children go back to school, but the government has said that other precautionary measures have to be taken in education settings including extra cleaning, ventilating rooms and regular lateral flow testing.

Seven education unions wrote to the Education Secretary last month called for “urgent action” on ventilation in schools, warning of a steep rise in Covid cases and instances of “long Covid” ahead of students returning to the classroom.

Ministers announced that 300,000 carbon dioxide monitors would be provided to schools from September to identify areas where ventilation needs to be improved, but most schools have begun the term without the equipment.

“This is being rolled out this term, but the reason we can get schools back to normal is because we’ve been rolling out a vaccination programme. We expect most to have exceptionally good ventilation,” the Education Secretary said today.

The government has said that most of the monitors would become available over the autumn term, with special schools and alternative provision prioritised to receive their full allocation from this month.

Pupils returned to school in Scotland in mid-August, where a third of new Covid cases are in the under-19s. The devolved nation logged record-high numbers of new cases last week, which deputy first minister John Swinney said had been “fuelled” by children heading back to the classroom.

Scottish Labour warned today that the uptake of of lateral flow tests among students is too low, highlighting government figures showing that just 7.7% of children registered a test in the week beginning August 22nd.

The party has called on the government to rapidly expand its ventilation inspection of classrooms, and demanded that the administration set out what action ministers will take to improve the air quality in classrooms deemed to have ‘failed’.

“The Education Secretary has had all summer to plan and ensure that issues around testing and ventilation could be dealt with,” Labour’s Scottish education spokesperson Michael Marra said.

“The result of the SNP’s wasted summer is that testing is scarily and unacceptably low, and there is an ‘inspection’ programme that we are none the wiser what action will follow from.

“Disruption to education has been damaging to young people, and everything must be done to rapidly expand ventilation works in the classroom and to ensure that the risk of more disruption is minimised.”

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