All secondary school pupils in England should again be required to wear masks in classrooms, ministers said last night as fears grew that the new term could trigger a huge spike in the case of the Omicron variant.
The new advice came amid mounting criticism of the government for failing to ensure the availability of Covid test kits in time for the return to schools and workplaces after the Christmas holidays.
The education ministry said the advice was “short-term only to support students and teachers returning to school this school year” and would remain in effect until January 26, after which it would be reviewed.
However, there are growing concerns among scientists and in the medical community that a further rapid increase in infections is possible, particularly in England, where the rules for socializing over Christmas and the New Year were more relaxed.
Yesterday the number of confirmed cases in England was a record 162,572 cases.
A lack of testing equipment also contributes to staffing problems in public services. All state schools have been asked by the government to test students on site before classes start this week.
While ministers desperately tried to prevent a new mood of national crisis with school closures, education secretary Nadhim Zahawi also announced that 7,000 additional air purification units would be supplied to schools and colleges to improve ventilation in classrooms.
In addition, many Ofsted school inspections will be postponed in the first weeks of the new semester.
With Boris Johnson under renewed pressure to deal with the pandemic, Zahawi said everything was being done to ensure youth education would not suffer again.
“The Prime Minister and I have been clear that education is our number one priority,” he said. “These measures will strengthen our support for schools as we do everything we can to minimize disruption.”
Labor leader Keir Starmer told the Observer that the government’s failure to support the delivery of tests in response to the rise of Omicron in November was “inexcusable”.
Starmer said parents should test their children at least twice a week to ensure they don’t spread the disease to the elderly and frail, and it was up to the government to make sure tests were available for them to do so. .
“Schools will return next week, and in the past this has seen the spread of Covid among children, who then take it home to their families,” the Labor leader said. “As the number of cases in the more vulnerable age groups begins to rise, so do concerns about our elderly population. The government’s failure to prepare means it must now prioritize those who need testing most urgently. until it can bring the supply back to the level of demand.
Labour’s priorities, he said, would be protecting learning, the vulnerable and our emergency services and critical infrastructure. “Schools must remain open, because children have already missed too much learning.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, welcomed the advice about wearing masks.
“Face-covering clothing is already advised in the common areas for students of group 7 and above. Students are used to using it and we are confident that the reintroduction of face coverings in classrooms is something that schools and colleges will adopt.”
Earlier last year, secondary school students in England were asked to wear masks in classrooms at a high point of infection, although this was dropped when they slowed down in the spring.
Before last night’s announcement, some high schools were already taking unilateral action, writing to parents that masks should be worn in class as part of efforts to prevent school closures.
Another sign of heightened concern is that payouts worth hundreds of pounds are being offered to encourage ex-teachers to sign up for a government-inspired campaign to provide cover for schools affected by high levels of absenteeism.
Supply agencies promise cash or store receipts to anyone who successfully “refers a friend.” Agencies are making the “call to arms” known with online advertisements with a minimum wage of around £130 a day.
An advertisement for Axcis Education says: “If you’re not interested…but know someone else who might be…we offer up to £250 worth of shopping vouchers if you refer a friend to us and we’ll post them in the job .”
With the full effects of Omicron still unclear, a leading infectious disease expert, Professor Mark Woolhouse of the University of Edinburgh, said a return to another full shutdown should be ruled out.
“There is still no good reason for a full lockdown. Lockdowns are not a public health policy. They indicate a failure of public health policy,” he said.
“If we end up there again, it will be because we haven’t received good public health coverage, because we haven’t protected the vulnerable and because we haven’t ordered enough test kits — something that was clear at the beginning of the month when it was clear. that Omicron would cause a huge wave of cases.”
In an interview with the ObserverWoolhouse added: “This was an epidemic crying out for a close approach to public health and it got the complete opposite. We have caused serious harm to our children and young adults, who have been robbed of their education, jobs and normal existence, and who are damaging their future prospects, while inheriting a record mountain of government debt.”
He added: “More generally, I hope that we will soon learn not to be surprised by new variants and not to respond to each variant ad hoc.”
Dan Poulter MP, a former health minister who also works as an NHS psychiatrist, said it was “unacceptable” that we were now dealing with test shortages, suggesting lessons had not been learned. Poulter, a Tory MP, said ministers should ensure there is a permanent reservoir of PPE and test equipment “as part of a national reserve for pandemic response”.