Members of the armed forces will be drafted in to help give Covid tests to thousands of school and college students in England.

The Ministry of Defense said 1,500 military personnel would be deployed to ensure that testing systems were up and running by the time pupils returned for the new term in January. 

It comes as ministers were warned that keeping schools shut in January will harm children’s prospects. 

Next term is already being postponed by a week for most secondary pupils to allow for corona virus testing.

But teaching unions and scientific advisers are seeking at least an extra fortnight’s delay in the face of a surge in infections.

But the MoD will now draft in the personnel to form local response teams, providing support and phone advice to institutions needing guidance on the testing process and set-up of the testing facilities.

Keeping schools shut in January will harm children’s prospects, ministers were warned last night (file image)

According to the department, support will be done ‘predominantly through webinars and individual meetings’, but teams would also be on standby to provide in-person support at short notice.

Students will swab themselves in the vast majority of cases, under the supervision of a school staff member or volunteer who has been trained for the role, and teachers are not expected to take a role in the testing process.

The MoD added that schools and colleges would shortly be provided with further information on how to request additional support if necessary.

The decision follows successful testing pilots conducted in schools in November and December and the work is being done in conjunction with the Department for Education (DfE) and Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).

Students will swab themselves in the vast majority of cases, under the supervision of a school staff member or volunteer

Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said: ‘The UK armed forces are stepping up once again this holiday.

Robert Half on, chairman of the Commons education committee, said: ‘Although we’ve got to be aware of the risks of corona virus, we must be aware of the risks to the academic attainment, mental health and wellbeing of students. We must be careful not to embed a new epidemic of educational poverty in this country.’

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson went to Downing Street yesterday for crisis talks on the reopening of schools.

He is said to be keen to stick to the existing schedule while others in the Government are concerned by signs that a new strain of the virus spreads faster among the young.

In other developments:

  • Another 41,385 coronavirus cases were confirmed yesterday – a record for a single day – along with 357 deaths;
  • NHS England chief Sir Simon Stevens said health workers were ‘back in the eye of the storm’ as infections increase;
  • Millions more homes may be put under Tier Four restrictions this week with a source saying ministers will take any ‘new steps’ needed to stem the pandemic;
  • A poll showed just 8 per cent of Britons will definitely refuse a vaccine;
  • 1,500 military personnel will provide planning and training support for testing pupils and staff.

At the meeting yesterday No 10 is believed to have told Mr Williamson to bolster the plans for testing at secondary schools. Some headmasters have complained they lack the resources to swab all their pupils.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove are said to be leaning toward delays to next term – with Mr Johnson keen not to pursue this course.

Any move to close them again would throw the fate of next summer’s exams into serious doubt. The testing initiative, which was announced on the last day of term, caused consternation among heads who now have to recruit extra staff.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is said to be keen to stick to the existing schedule while others in the Government are concerned by signs that a new strain of the virus spreads faster among the young (file image)

The National Education Union has protested about the lack of clarity and wants to see at least a further two-week delay to the new term to help suppress the virus.

Patrick Roach of the NASUWT teaching union wrote to Mr Williamson yesterday asking for schools to remain closed at the start of term and for the publication of the latest scientific advice on the new strain. 

Labour education spokesman Kate Green criticised Mr Johnson for his silence. She added: ‘The country needs to hear from him today, alongside the chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser, about the evidence on the spread of the virus, how he plans to minimise disruption to education and a clear strategy for schools and colleges that commands the support of parents, pupils and staff.’

The Sage scientific advisory group has reportedly been pushing for tougher lockdown restrictions to fight the new strain, arguing that the R rate will not fall below 1 without schools shutting. The scientists believe that secondary school closures would make more of an impact than shutting primaries because older children are more likely to be infected with Covid-19.

Some headmasters have complained they lack the resources to swab all their pupils (file image) But Molly Kingsley, of parents’ campaign group Us For Them, said: ‘It is sad that schooling is even up for debate. We are setting ourselves up for a perpetual cycle of on-off schooling. The Government needs to set a marker that education transcends these things.’

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