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Testing system may not be ready for schools reopening, John Swinney admits

John Swinney - Image credit: Scottish government flickr

Testing system may not be ready for schools reopening, John Swinney admits

An enhanced testing system to help monitor and respond to levels of COVID-19 in schools may not be ready by the time schools reopen, John Swinney has admitted.

The education secretary said that Public Health Scotland is working with the Scottish Government to develop a surveillance testing regime to monitor and help respond to any outbreaks in schools.

But Swinney said that he couldn’t “be definitive” that the system will be in place by 11 August, when schools are expected to reopen.

Swinney appeared before the Education and Skills Committee on Monday to give more details on practical plans to reopen schools, which is expected to be confirmed on Thursday 30 July.

Swinney admitted that he feels “some anxiety” about the reopening of schools because of the “degree of change that it represents” after more than four months of closures.

Asked by MSPs what plans there are for the testing of teachers, staff and pupils, Swinney said that the Scottish Government’s current ‘test and protect’ system would continue to be the “fundamental element” of the approach for schools.

But he added that Public Health Scotland is working with the Scottish Government’s Education Recovery Group (ERG) to develop a system that he said would see sample testing being undertaken across a “really very wide cross section of schools in Scotland”.

Swinney said that this will “ensure we are properly and fully monitoring any changes in patterns that may emerge as a consequence of the reopening in schools”.

But when later asked if the system would be fully operational on 11 August, Swinney said he could not be sure.

He said: “The test and protect arrangements obviously will be fully operational on 11 August. In relation to surveillance testing, we are working at speed to put those arrangements in place.  

“I can’t be definitive that they will be available on 11 August, but Public Health Scotland are working very actively to try to ensure that that is the case.”

Swinney said that he had confidence that the test and protect system would be “very effective” after successful contact tracing was carried out during recent outbreaks in Dumfries and Galloway and in Motherwell.

He said that he expected “intense scrutiny on every case” of COVID-19 in the school system after reopening, and reassured the committee that any incident in schools would lead to appropriate response from authorities.

Swinney appearance before the committee came days after he made a statement to parliament setting out some of the measures recommended by the ERG for the safe reopening of schools.

He said at that time that teachers and staff would be required to maintain two metres physical distance “wherever possible”, and suggested that high school pupils could be encouraged to stay further apart by reorganising the layout of classrooms and corridors.

Swinney said that distancing in high schools would be a “precautionary principle” but added that it should not come “at the expense of a full-time learning experience for all pupils”.

COSLA’s spokesperson for children and young people, Councillor Stephen McCabe, also appeared before the committee.

McCabe told the committee on Monday that the reality is that there is “limited opportunity for social distancing in secondary schools”, as many around the country are operating at full or over capacity.

McCabe also said that appropriate PPE would be made available to “every member of staff who needs it” based on risk assessments.

Swinney told the committee that both he and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had recently been briefed on efforts to develop a COVID-19 vaccine and that the question of who should get priority access to a vaccine in future is being “actively discussed within government”.

Asked if teachers and school staff could get early access, Swinney said: “We’re at very, very early stage in this process but sustaining our education system will be a key priority.”

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