U.K. Army to Help Covid Tests as PM Faces School Pressure

U.K. Army to Help Covid Testing as Johnson Faces School Pressure

Boris Johnson’s government will draft in the armed forces to help with coronavirus testing in schools, as pressure builds on the prime minister to delay students’ return after the holidays amid a surge in cases.

The Ministry of Defence said 1,500 personnel will help ensure testing systems are up and running when classrooms reopen in England next week. The government has previously said students facing public exams this year will return on Jan. 4, with other pupils back later in the month.

But a growing number of unions, politicians and scientists called for more time to prepare testing to prevent infections in schools. The number of new cases in the U.K. surged to a daily record of more than 41,000 on Monday and hospitalizations exceeded the peak recorded in the first wave in the spring, as a more virulent strain of the virus takes hold.

Johnson has made keeping schools open a key priority as he looks for ways to kick start the economy after months of restrictions left it facing its worst downturn for 300 years. Ministers threatened legal action to stop schools offering home learning before Christmas, but the government on Tuesday left open the possibility of that position being reversed in the new year.

“We are planning for that staggered opening, but we keep all measures under constant review as we have done throughout the pandemic,” Johnson’s spokesman, Jamie Davies, told reporters when asked about the potential for delay. He declined to rule out a future policy shift.

Schools should remain closed for “a week or two” to ensure testing is effective, Steve Chalke, founder of the Oasis chain of academy schools, told BBC radio on Tuesday. His intervention followed similar calls for a delay from the National Education Union on Monday.

Demanding a Pause

“We would ask government to pause, to come up with a clear strategy for the continuity of education,” Chalke said. “We think that if you really care about kids you would do this well -- to invest now, to give time now makes sense.”

Roger Gale, a member of Parliament in Johnson’s Conservative Party, said schools should remain closed until vaccines have been made available to teachers. But Davies said there is no plan to add teachers to the list of the most vulnerable people receiving shots in the first round of vaccinations.

“Education is important, but so are the lives and well-being of teachers,” Gale, the MP for North Thanet, said on Twitter.

Since the fallout from the decision to close schools in March, which led to the cancellation of exams and a furore over university admissions in the summer, ministers have repeatedly said education must continue even if other parts of society and the economy have to close to accommodate it.

New Strain

But the government’s pandemic strategy has been uprooted in recent weeks by the emergence of a new strain of the virus, which has spread rapidly in London and surrounding areas and led many countries to block arrivals from the U.K.

The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies told Johnson to keep secondary schools closed in January and to consider another national lockdown, Politico reported Monday, citing an adviser familiar with the matter.

The group said a lockdown on the same terms as November may not be enough to control the new strain of the virus, according to the report.

Ministers and officials will meet later Tuesday to discuss a review of England’s regional coronavirus tiers, and Health Secretary Matt Hancock will make a statement in Parliament on Wednesday outlining any changes, which could include tougher curbs in some regions.

National restrictions are needed to prevent a “catastrophe” at the start of year, a member of the government’s advisory group on new respiratory virus threats -- which itself advises SAGE -- told the BBC on Tuesday.

“We are entering a very dangerous new phase of the pandemic and we’re going to need decisive, early, national action to prevent a catastrophe in January and February,” said Andrew Hayward, professor of infectious diseases epidemiology at University College London. “Previous levels of restrictions that worked before won’t work now.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.