The military is to support mass testing in schools - here's how it will work

Wednesday, 30th December 2020, 5:48 pm
Updated Wednesday, 30th December 2020, 6:33 pm

The UK Government has announced that schools will be remotely supported by the military to ensure school pupils are rapidly tested for coronavirus, in a bid to keep infection rates in schools down.

Primary schools will return to learning from 4 January, however secondary school students will learn online until 18 January.

As the government faces calls from unions and medical experts to keep schools closed, what can we expect from mass testing?

What is mass testing?

Mass testing involves conducting tests frequently and in large numbers to find infected people who may not know they are infected - either due to being asymptomatic or in the early stages of infection.

This approach allows for those who test positive to isolate, reducing the likelihood the virus will spread.

Mass testing will be used in schools to identify students who are unaware they are carrying the virus, allowing for a lower rate of infection on campus as infected students and those in close contact will hopefully be forced to isolate sooner.

This approach will also be taken in care homes to reduce potential outbreaks, and could be adopted in the future for the purpose of holding social events - with attendees receiving a one-off test in order to attend.

How quickly do you find out the results of your test?

There are two types of tests:

The PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test - takes a day or more to produce a result due to the results being conducted in a lab.

However, the accuracy of this test is greater than that of lateral flow.

The lateral flow test - gives a result in roughly 20 minutes and it is carried out using a handheld kit.

Both methods require a nasal or throat swab, while lateral flow is considered the most rapid test method and includes your swab being added to an extraction solution, placed onto a test cartridge and results given fairly quickly.

How will the military support schools with rapid testing?

Secondary schools will now be expected to carry out mass testing to ensure pupils can remain in the classroom.

However, due to the need for a quick turnaround in training to be able to conduct the tests, the Ministry of Defence has now announced 1,500 of the military will support "predominantly through webinars and individual meetings".

Pupils will be expected to swab themselves while supervised by a member of teaching staff or volunteer - teachers should not be expected to administer a test for anyone else.

It has not been ruled out that the army will provide face-to-face support, should it be necessary.

Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, stated that the army, “share considerable experience of testing across the country and the successful school pilots conducted this autumn.”

He added: “We are grateful for the professionalism and commitment they and our colleagues in teaching are showing to get students back into the classroom and on with their education.”

The move came as Robert Halfon, the chair of the education select committee, called on the Westminster government to refuse calls for school campuses to close until the end of January.

Mr Halfon said: "What needs to happen is volunteers - perhaps the armed forces, perhaps mobile units outside schools or in school playgrounds - making sure pupils and teaching staff are tested and also rolling out vaccinations as a priority for all those in schools.”

What have teachers and medical experts said about mass testing?

Teachers unions have been quick to respond to the government’s plans - citing that they feel teachers are suffering from a lack of support and schools should remain closed.

General secretary of the ASCL head teachers' union Geoff Barton stated that the offer of "1,500 troops doing webinars probably isn't the government response we were looking for" - as 3,500 state schools require the additional support.

"Those people that are calling for a delay to young people coming back (to school) are doing it on the principle that we should get this testing right and we should listen to what the scientists are saying,” he added during an interview on BBC Breakfast.

Meanwhile, government advisors from SAGE - including head advisor Sir Patrick Vallance - are thought to have advised that the best way to bring the rate infection down would be to delay the reopening of schools for a further few weeks - until the end of January.

What is the likelihood schools will close?

Despite suggestions from education and medical leaders, Cabinet Minister Michael Gove told Sky News on 28 December that “at the moment” all schoolchildren will be back in the classroom by 11 January - with the majority of primary schools returning from 4 January and secondary schools back by 18 January.

He told viewers: “We always keep things under review, but teachers and head teachers have been working incredibly hard over the Christmas period since schools broke up in order to prepare for a new testing regime – community testing – in order to make sure that children and all of us are safer."

When will children receive the vaccine?

At present, there are no plans to vaccinate children under the age of 16 or those over the age of 16 who are not classed as clinically extremely vulnerable.

The government website advises: “Following infection, almost all children will have asymptomatic infection or mild disease.

“There is very limited data on vaccination in adolescents, with no data on vaccination in younger children, at this time.

“The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) advises that only those children at very high risk of exposure and serious outcomes, such as older children with severe neuro-disabilities that require residential care, should be offered vaccination.”

Young people over the age of 16 will eventually be vaccinated should they suffer from underlying health conditions, but not until all of those with health conditions in the over 65 category have been immunised.