The revelation from the education secretary comes just days before the end of free Covid testing (Picture: Getty)
Around 200,000 schoolchildren in England are out of classrooms due to coronavirus, the Education Secretary has revealed.
Nadhim Zahawi made the comments on the BBC’s Sunday Morning programme, adding that more information about lateral flow tests (LFTs) would be shared in the coming week.
He explained: ‘We will say a bit more about testing on April 1, of course, as to what the policy is.
‘[School cases have] ticked up a little bit because infection rates are high, but if we have not broken [it], we have weakened the link between infection rates and severe infection and hospitalisation because of the vaccination.’
Next Friday sees the end of free coronavirus tests – except for the oldest age groups and those considered vulnerable – as part of the UK government’s plan for ‘living with Covid’.
It follows the end of the legal requirement to self-isolate after a positive Covid test on February 24.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the Commons last month: ‘We should be proud that the UK established the biggest testing programme per person of any large country in the world, but this came at a vast cost.
Nadhim Zahawi pinned the figure on high infection rates, but praised vaccination for ‘weakening the link’ between infection and hospitalisation (Picture: PA)
‘The Testing, Tracing and Isolation budget in 2020-21 exceeded the entire budget of the Home Office.
‘From April 1, when winter is over and the virus will spread less easily, we will end free symptomatic and asymptomatic testing for the general public.’
The Conservative Party leader added the government was ‘working with retailers’ to make tests available to purchase.
While Labour conceded free tests ‘can’t continue forever’, its leader Keir Starmer said in response: ‘If you’re 2-1 up with 10 minutes to go, you don’t snub off one of your best defenders.’
In a statement issued this weekend, the Liberal Democrats’ education spokesperson Munira Wilson accused Mr Zahawi of being ‘in denial about the level of Covid infections in schools’.
She said: ‘This Government has let down and abandoned our children time and time again over the past two years and history looks doomed to repeat itself.
‘It’s clear they have no plan for dealing with rising numbers of infections and absences. Schools deserve a cast-iron guarantee that they will be given the resources they need to ensure no child will miss out on learning.
‘Government incompetence cannot be allowed to disrupt their education further than it already has.’
School leaders have also expressed concerns over the move – amid ‘worrying’ reports of an increase in Covid cases and parents having to pay for tests from next month.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Union of Head Teachers, said removing free tests as cases rise ‘feels irresponsible’.
He argued: ‘It will make tracking and controlling Covid almost impossible. There is a lot of anxiety from school leaders about what could happen once tests are unavailable.’
On Tuesday, it was revealed NHS staff could end up paying around £50 a month for tests once the government no longer provides them for free.
The NHS Confederation, who shared the estimation, warned it was a price many staff ‘will simply not be able to afford’ amid the current cost of living crisis.
Both politicians and school leaders have highlighted the impact scrapping free testing could have on schools, with one union saying it ‘feels irresponsible’ amid rising cases (Picture: Getty Images)
Matthew Taylor, its chief executive, said: ‘Health leaders are adamant that continuing to offer free testing to NHS staff is vital given that rates of coronavirus and hospital admissions are still very high and rising.
‘We know that more NHS workers are again having to take time off due to Covid-19, with it accounting for 30% of all absences. The Government cannot put its fingers in its ears and pretend that the threat has gone away.
‘Given the huge expectations placed on the NHS to recover its services while contending with significant vacancies, staff need to be supported to understand their Covid status, stay well and keep transmission within healthcare settings to a minimum.’
Another health expert, Danny Altmann of Imperial College London, described NHS staff having to pay for tests as ‘unfair, unkind and just not workable’.
He told Times Radio: ‘It’s a disaster.
‘There are people out there […in] all parts of the NHS, but imagine you’re working with very clinically vulnerable patients – it would be devastating to you and to them to imagine that you might infect them with something that might kill them.
‘And the onus is on you to keep sourcing and paying for your own testing, because you want to do the right thing.
‘I mean, how can that be OK?’
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