School children and their parents who need a test to determine if they have Covid-19 could be prioritised, a Cabinet minister has said.
Tests are being rationed across the UK because of a rise in demand and the Government is creating a priority list.
That means those who need a test more urgently for a medical or social reason will be punished to the top of the list – and one minister says that could include school children.
A negative test would allow them to return to the classroom.
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 on Tuesday 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.”
Mr 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.”
Mr 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%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.”
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.”