Testing crisis could shut schools, heads warn
Boris Johnson must “take charge” of delays in obtaining Covid-19 tests to ensure schools remain open, organisations representing headteachers and governors have said.
The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), school leaders’ union NAHT and the National Governance Association have written to the Prime Minister to express concern about difficulties with the testing system.
The letter warns of a “deep sense of foreboding about the potential for the system to become ever-more riddled with delays as more cases emerge”.
“This would be increasingly disruptive to children’s education and make staffing unsustainable,” it adds.
ASCL said it has received 264 emails on the test and trace system from schools and colleges which said they had symptomatic staff and/or pupils who were struggling to access tests.
The letter says: “Schools are left in a position of either leaving close contacts of the infected person in school while they wait for guidance, or making a public health call themselves and deciding on who to send home.”
It adds: “Our purpose in writing is to implore you to personally take charge of this situation in the interests of keeping our schools and colleges open, and protecting pupils and staff.”
Virus has left BA crippled by ‘worst crisis’ airline has ever seen
British Airways chief executive Alex Cruz told the Commons’ Transport Select Committee that the coronavirus pandemic is “the worst crisis for BA”.
He said: “Covid has devastated our business, our sector, and we’re still fighting for our own survival.
“Just to give you some figures as you asked. Last week, we flew approximately 187,000 passengers in the different flights we had in and out of the UK.
“The same week in the previous year, we flew just under a million passengers. So we are running between 25-30% of the normal flight schedule and this is six months into the pandemic.
“The relationship is very clear. Fewer passengers means fewer flights, and fewer flights means fewer people required to actually service them.
“As CEO of British Airways, I have to take responsibility. I cannot ignore the situation. I had to act incredibly fast.”
Testing is logistical nightmare, Lab worker suggests
Dr Mike Skinner, who volunteered to work in a Lighthouse Laboratory dealing with Covid-19 tests, said half the work was involved in sorting the logistics of handling the samples.
The reader in virology at Imperial College London told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “In the lab, when the testing was upscaled back in March, you really had to get all kinds of sample kits from lots of different producers, there were lots of difficulties in that.
“We had to put half of our staff into handling issues with barcoding, leaks – we actually had to remove the swabs from the tubes so they didn’t gum-up some of the robots down the line.”
He added: “It really is very much about logistics.”
Christmas won’t be cancelled, minister insists
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland denied that the “rule of six” would effectively cancel Christmas, following criticisms from a source close to the Archbishop of Canterbury about the social restrictions imposed this week to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the Cabinet minister said: “Archbishop Justin (Welby) makes an important contribution to this debate and he is right to point to the huge spiritual and social significance of Christmas.
“I don’t think any of us in Government want to be Oliver Cromwell-esque about this – we want to see families celebrate Christmas in a safe and happy way and we want to see our churches and indeed our other places of worship joining in that celebration.”
Mr Buckland added: “We are not going to cancel Christmas but the ‘rule of six’ is something that is clear and important and I do think we’ve committed to that and we need to stick to it.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury has called on ministers to stop controlling people’s freedoms from Westminster, saying instead they should “only do centrally what must be done centrally”.
The Most Rev Justin Welby said the Government had “determined the daily details of our lives” during the coronavirus lockdown in a way “few of us have experienced”, as he argued instead for localism.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph alongside Bishop of London Dame Sarah Mullally, the archbishop said: “It makes sense to look instinctively for central direction in such an acute crisis, and we’re indebted to the roles many played in doing so, especially those who organised the NHS to cope with the increased demand.
“Within the Church there are lessons to be learnt about the role and importance of central guidance and its crucial interplay with government rules that exist for the benefit of all.
“But with a vaccine still far from certain, infection rates rising and winter on the horizon, the new normal of living with Covid-19 will only be sustainable – or even endurable – if we challenge our addiction to centralisation and go back to an age-old principle: only do centrally what must be done centrally.”
The Telegraph quoted a source close to Mr Welby as saying he was “deeply concerned about Christmas and the impact of the ‘rule of six’ on the vulnerable, the needy, the poor and the elderly”.
“He is concerned about families being kept apart and the knock-on effect that has, particularly on people who are on their own,” the source said.
The “rule of six” – banning gatherings of more than six people indoors and outdoors – came into force on Monday.
This graphic shows the spread of the pandemic since the start of the year:
This graphic shows how cases have begun to creep up in the UK since May:
Without proper testing schools must shut, says headteacher union chief
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said keeping schools open would become “unsustainable” if issues with testing capacity were not fixed.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said headteachers were being forced to decide that the “bubble has to stay at home” if a pupil or teacher in a year group had shown Covid-19 symptoms and could not get a test to prove they were negative.
Mr Barton said: “This will feel I think like lockdown by default – it will be more frustrating for parents because you can’t predict whether it is going to happen.
“And similarly from the headteacher’s point of view, if my Year 4 teacher today shows symptoms, will he or she be in school tomorrow, will they be here for the next 14 days?
“As soon as you start to get that with six, seven, eight teachers, it becomes unsustainable to be able to run things.”
Mr Barton said teachers should be given testing priority to keep schools open, adding: “Teachers need to be counted as key workers in order that you can at least keep that maths teacher in front of 30 young people if their test is negative.”
Schools are struggling to cope with a lack of Covid-19 tests for pupils and staff as the situation is becoming “increasingly out of control”, a teaching union leader has warned.
Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, has called on the Government to prioritise the education sector for the allocation of tests in light of the challenges.
In a letter to the schools minister, Dr Roach said the union had heard of approximately 600 pupils being told to self-isolate in one local authority area and he said the “number is growing”.
The union leader told Nick Gibb that pupils who have been sent home with symptoms are “facing uncertainty” about when or where they will be able to access a test.
He warned that the delays in testing have meant some students and staff who are part of a “bubble” within a school are not being isolated even where there are multiple suspected cases.
“This is putting at risk the health and safety of others within the school and within the local community,” Dr Roach said.
He continued: “In particular, areas where additional local restrictions have been introduced due to the increase in the R-number are now unable to cope with demand for tests.
“Teachers, support staff and children and young people are unable to access tests where they have Covid-19 symptoms.
“Employers are struggling to deal with the implications and consequences.”
Local authorities across the country – including in the North West of England – are struggling to cope with the demand for tests from pupils and school staff, the union suggests.
The letter says members have reported that there are around 600 pupils in Bury who are self-isolating, while Salford council has been inundated with requests for tests from schools.
Dr Roach said: “Schools appear to be seeking to do their utmost to carry on.
“However, we have reports that schools are unable to cope with a situation that is becoming increasingly out of control.”
Government must ‘dramatically’ increase testing before winter – Sage prof warns
Professor Andrew Hayward, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said the Government would need to “dramatically” increase Covid-19 testing to half a million people per day if testing was to cope with demand during winter.
The director of University College London’s Institute of Epidemiology & Health told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s analysis that it could take weeks to sort the current delays was “concerning”.
Prof Hayward continued: “The background to this of course is that we would expect the demand and the capacity to need to rise quite rapidly over the autumn and winter as the number of people who develop symptoms that could be Covid increase.
“Some of our research has shown that at least in the winter, you would expect about half a million people a day to develop symptoms that are typical of Covid – and that would be in a winter when there was no Covid – so you can see that the capacity requirements will have to increase dramatically if we are going to keep up.”
Asked whether capacity could serve such a demand, he added: “I think it is possible from a laboratory perspective, I think perhaps one of the more challenging bits is making sure people can be tested close to home because that is one of the key delays at the moment in the system.
“It is those delays that effect the effectiveness of the system.”
We are listening and acting – minister
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland acknowledged the Government faced difficulties with the coronavirus testing system.
He told the BBC: “There are of course huge positives in the in-person tests, 90 per cent of those have been returned in a day, that’s great, but clearly when it comes to the tests we have to post out and the delayed response, there is much more work to do.
“I’m not denying that for a moment, we’re listening and acting upon the concerns of everybody who’s getting in touch and telling us about the problems they’re experiencing.”
Tests are ramping up to ensure ‘quick turnaround’ – minister
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said testing capacity was “ramping up” to deal with the demand.
Speaking to Sky News, he said: “I’m not shying away from the current issue but what I’m trying to explain is that rather than us sitting back and pretending all is well, we have accepted the scale of the challenge, we’re ramping up the test centres, we have increased laboratory capacity, new labs coming on-stream so we can get that quick turnaround.”
He added: “The fact the Government kept on saying about the dangers of a second wave, at all times the Prime Minister, all of us, were absolutely focused on the dangers of the second wave – we have seen what’s happening in France.
“We absolutely are onto this in terms of understanding that through the autumn, if we are to get the balance between getting the economy back on track and getting children into school, then all of us now have a special responsibility to follow all those guidelines and do whatever it takes to beat this virus.”
School kids and parents to be next on priority list
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said the Government was facing “real challenges” on coronavirus testing and suggested that school children and their parents would be the next testing priority after NHS and social care workers.
It comes as people opted to turn up to hospital A&Es yesterday in a bid to get a Covid-19 test due to a lack of available bookings through the online system.
Mr Buckland told Sky News: “I think laboratory capacity has been an issue, we’re working our way through that, we’re increasing the number of test centres – we’ve got 400 test centres, getting it up to 500 – but clearly there are still real challenges.
“I think the announcement by (Health Secretary) Matt Hancock yesterday to create a prioritisation system is the right thing to do.
“He is going to develop that very quickly over the next few days, to explain to us what that looks like but I think… it has to be the NHS first and then social care.
“And then I think what we need to do is have a cascading system where we know where our priority should be and for me priority should be for children in school and their parents in order to ensure their lives are safe and also importantly they are not disrupted in the way we are seeing.”
Britons are less keen to splash the cash on clothes, new figures show
Jonathan Athow, deputy national statistician at the ONS, said: “The cost of dining out fell significantly in August thanks to the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme and VAT cut, leading to one of the largest falls in the annual inflation rate in recent years.
“For the first time since records began, air fares fell in August as fewer people travelled abroad on holiday.
“Meanwhile the usual clothing price rises seen at this time of year, as autumn ranges hit the shops, also failed to materialise.”
We begin with our lead Covid story of the morning:
Boris Johnson will face a grilling from senior MPs amid a warning that the “failure” of the test and trace system is placing “huge pressure” on the health service.
As the system struggles to cope with soaring demand, people have been turning up to accident and emergency to ask for Covid-19 tests.
Mr Johnson will face deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner for PMQs because Sir Keir Starmer remains in isolation awaiting a coronavirus test result for a member of his family.
Good morning and welcome to today’s rolling coronavirus coverage