Headteachers warn Boris Johnson over lack of access to coronavirus tests

Almost 96 per cent of schools experiencing difficulties and delays in securing tests for students and staff

Nearly every school in the country is struggling to access tests for students and staff, headteachers have warned the Prime Minister.

School leaders have written to Boris Johnson to convey "mounting concern" about delays in accessing test results and advice from public health officials, urging him to take personal control of the situation. 

They said nearly 96 per cent of schools are experiencing difficulties and delays in accessing tests for students and staff, which is causing severe disruption to children's education.

The leaders of the country's two largest headteacher unions and the national school governor association said schools were left in an "impossible" 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".

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), which represents the majority of secondary school heads, asked members about their experience of the test and trace system.

Of the 276 responses, 264 heads – almost 96 per cent – said they "had symptomatic staff and/or pupils who were struggling to access tests" (see Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, talk about problems with testing in the video below).

A further 51 school leaders said they were having problems getting in touch with their local health protection team, while just 20 said the system appears to be working well in their area.

The reopening of schools has meant entire year groups or even whole schools have been sent home because children with symptoms are often unable to get a test to prove whether or not they have coronavirus.

If a pupil or staff member does test positive, headteachers have reported difficulties in accessing advice from public health officials about who should self-isolate and so are sending large numbers of pupils home as a precautionary measure. 

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the ASCL, said teachers must be counted as key workers so they can be prioritised for testing (see the graphic below for details of how the UK's testing regime breaks down). Asked why entire secondary school year groups are being sent home after just one positive test, he said: "What we're doing is exactly what the Government guidance says." 

Schools are told to keep children in "bubbles" where they have all their lessons and break times together but are kept separate from other pupils in the school. While a bubble in primary school could be one class of up to 30 pupils, in secondary schools it could be an entire year group made up of hundreds of pupils.

"So what then happens if one or two of those starts to show symptoms, but the guidance is you shouldn't make that decision as a head teacher, and we totally support that," Mr Barton told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"You should contact your public health representative, and one of the frustrations is people spending four, five, six hours with someone sitting on a phone trying to get somebody to make a decision about that. And sometimes what that means is heads default to what the guidance says, that the bubble has to stay at home."

He said that, unless the Government gets a grip on testing, the UK will have "lockdown by default", with parents having to look after their children at home for two weeks while they self-isolate, adding: "We really needed that those tests, and we need them now."

Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, is due to publish a new prioritisation list for testing, with acute clinical care and social care settings at the top of the list as demand outstrips supply.

That means children, who are least at risk from coronavirus, are likely to be at the back of the queue.