Hugh Pennington: Regular coronavirus testing of staff and pupils needed when schools go back

Pressure is mounting on the Scottish Government to ensure regular testing for coronavirus is in place when the country’s schools resume in August.

Pressure is mounting for regular coronavirus testing to be in place in schools when they go back in August. Picture: Angela Weiss

Professor Hugh Pennington, the leading epidemiologist, said it would be needed to give both parents and teachers more confidence to return to the classroom.

He has backed calls by a think-tank set up by former prime minister Gordon Brown for routine testing to protect the most at-risk workers, including the 70,000-strong workforce in primary and secondary education.

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The intervention from Prof Pennington has emerged days after a public health expert at Edinburgh University who is advising the Scottish Government on how to deal with the pandemic suggested that pupils and staff could be tested twice a week from August.

Professor Hugh Pennington is one of Britain's leading epidemiologists. Picture: Colin Garvie

Professor Devi Sridhar had earlier urged the government to reopen Scotland’s schools “as normally as possible” in August if the country continues to make progress in suppressing Covid-19 in the community.

School staff and education officials had been preparing for the new terms to get under way with a “blended” model of face-to-face teaching and at-home learning.

However, education secretary John Swinney announced a rethink last week, citing the “significant progress” made in controlling the spread of the virus.

The Our Scottish Future think-tank, which was unveiled by Brown last year, has previously called for routine testing of all health and social care workers in Scotland.

The organisation is now urging the Scottish Government to consider “pooled testing” – to allow larger groups such as those drawn from schools – to be examined more quickly.

Prof Sridhar said last week: “It is essential in schools, especially those returning full-time. This could involve regular testing of teachers and older pupils twice a week.

“Several universities in the US and schools in Germany have adopted this model.

“It is vital that any new carriers of the virus (including asymptomatic carriers) could be identified rapidly with regular testing. Testing capacity needs to be continually built in Scotland as we head into winter when flu season begins.”

Prof Pennington, emeritus professor of bacteriology at Aberdeen University, said: “I agree wholeheartedly with Prof Sridhar about regular testing of pupils and teachers. It would give confidence to parents and teachers.”

“Regular testing would give the assurance that the virus is not getting about in schools in a silent way, and would also mean that, if it was found, rapid action could be taken before a possible outbreak got going.

“It would also give very useful public health information about the level of virus transmission in communities in general.”

Professor Jim Gallagher, founder of Our Scottish Future, said: “Parents and children want our schools back as normal in August but they want clarity about how safe it will be.

“The expert advice is that a much greater use of testing will help us do that, giving teachers the confidence to know they are not spreading the disease or at risk from it.

“We can do this. Scotland is still not using anywhere near its capacity for testing – every week thousands of tests are not being taken.

“Whether it’s care homes, hospitals, or schools, mass preventative testing is the route back to some kind of normal in advance of a vaccine.

“In the case of schools, pooled testing is an option the Scottish Government should consider, and we’d ask them to do so immediately and to start working with colleagues south of the Border to ensure this innovation. Potentially, the mass use of saliva testing can also be brought in as soon as possible.”

A spokesman for the Scottish Government said existing guidance was already in place for school pupils who have tested positive for Covid-19, including parents or carers being asked to identify who else they may have been in contact with.

Anyone deemed to have been at risk of transmission will be contacted and asked to self-isolate for 14 days.

If a cluster of cases are associated with a school then the local health protection team will undertake a risk assessment and identify steps to contain the outbreak.

The spokesman added: “We continue to review testing options for different areas, including education, in relation to further easing of lockdown restrictions.

“The health and wellbeing of pupils and school staff is our priority and schools will only return full-time if scientific advice shows the virus is sufficiently under control.

“The Education Recovery Group, which brings together councils, teachers’ representatives, parent bodies and trade unions, will continue to meet over the summer to discuss the next steps as we plan for the safe re-opening of schools.”

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