UK army to help Covid-19 testing as PM Johnson faces pressure on school reopening

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) – The British government will draft in the armed forces to help with coronavirus testing in schools, as pressure builds on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to delay the return of students 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 schools reopen next week.

The government previously said students facing public exams this year will return on Jan 4, with other students back later in the month.

But a growing number of unions, politicians and scientists called for more time to prepare testing to prevent virus transmission in schools.

The number of new cases in Britain surged to a daily record of more than 41,000 on Monday (Dec 28) and hospitalisations exceeded the peak recorded in the first wave in the spring, as a more virulent strain of the virus took hold.

Mr Johnson has made keeping schools open a key priority as he looks for ways to kick start the British 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 a government statement late on Monday left open the possibility of that position being reversed in the new year.

“We want all pupils to return in January, as school is the best place for their development and mental health,” it said. “But as the prime minister has said, it is right that we follow the path of the pandemic and keep our approach under constant review.”

Schools should remain closed for “a week or two” to ensure testing is effective, Mr 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,” Mr 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.”

Mr Roger Gale, a member of Parliament in Mr Johnson’s Conservative Party, said schools should remain closed until vaccines have been made available to teachers.

“Education is important, but so are the lives and well-being of teachers,” Mr 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.

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