Hundreds of thousands of coronavirus tests will be rolled out to secondary school children in the worst-affected areas of London, Kent and Essex, Matt Hancock has confirmed.
The health secretary said the targeted testing drive aimed to combat a “very specific rise” in Covid-19 infection rates among 11- to 18-year-olds in these areas.
“We need to do everything to stop the spread in school-age children now,” Hancock said at a Downing Street press conference on Thursday.
On Friday, further details regarding the mass testing drive were published by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).
Here’s what we know so far.
Areas in London, Essex and Kent targeted
Pupils in “certain schools and colleges” in the worst-affected parts of London, Essex and Kent will be offered tests immediately.
In London, those areas are Barking and Dagenham, the City of London, Hackney, Havering, Newham, Redbridge, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest.
In Essex: Southend, Basildon, Canvey Island, Harlow, Brentwood and Southend.
The government has not revealed which secondary schools will be targeted, or which areas of Kent are affected.
Groups to be tested
Secondary school and college-age children in those areas above, as well as teachers, staff and their families, will all be offered testing, regardless of symptoms.
Speaking at the Downing Street press briefing, Hancock said “targeted action” was needed “immediately” because of a “sharp rise” in infection rates in those areas among teenagers.
“By far the fastest rise is among secondary school age children 11 to 18 years old, while the rate among adults in London is broadly flat,” he said.
“But we know from experience that a sharp rise in case in younger people can lead to a rise among more vulnerable age groups later.”
Testing will be voluntary, but all staff, students and their families in those areas have been urged to get tested this weekend.
Mobile testing units and home tests
In north-east London, an extra 15 mobile testing units will be deployed in or near schools, providing about 75,000 tests for staff, students and their families.
Some 40,000 school staff will be given home test kits to use before returning to work in January.
In Essex, an additional 10 mobile testing units will be deployed over the weekend for staff, students and their families. This will provide approximately 75,000 additional tests over and above existing test sites in the county.
Two mobile testing units will be deployed on Saturday in Kent, with a further 10 by the start of next week.
Both polymerise chain reaction (PCR) – or swab tests – and lateral flow tests will be used as part of the pilot, although the majority of tests will be PCR.
How to apply for tests
Schools and colleges have been given information on how to get involved.
Parents or carers will be able to apply for tests using an online testing portal.
Children under 16 attending a mobile testing unit will need to be accompanied by a parent or guardian.
Schools will continue to stay open
The health secretary said mass testing was necessary in order to keep schools open, but schools in England will be allowed to close a day early for Christmas.
“We want to keep schools and colleges open, because it is right both for education and public health, but in the face of rapidly rising cases we must act to target rising rates in secondary school pupils,” he said.
On Wednesday, schools minister Nick Gibb told MPs schools could close a day early to allow “six clear days” before Christmas Eve, but teachers unions have called for greater flexibility over school term dates.
HuffPost UK reported on Wednesday that schools had resisted even calls from clinically vulnerable families for their children to be taught online.
Secondary schools and colleges in Wales are set to close to almost all students next week, with lessons moved online for pupils.