Executive ‘needs to consider every option’ on testing for school pupils

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By Jonathan McCambridge, PA

A faster form of Covid testing could be used to allow children who are self-isolating to return to school, the First Minister has suggested.

Paul Givan said the Executive needs to “consider every option” amid growing concern over the number of youngsters in Northern Ireland who are currently absent from class due to being a close contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus.

The chairman of Stormont’s Education Committee, Chris Lyttle, has written to Chief Medical Officer Sir Michael McBride and the Public Health Agency, asking them to appear before MLAs this week to give “greater clarity” on the current testing and tracing system.

The principal of Larne High School, Stephen Reid, reported on Monday that more than half of his pupils have been told to stay at home.

When children are off school as a close contact, they have to take a PCR test on day two of their absence. If it is negative and they have no symptoms they are allowed to return to school but have to take another PCR test on the eighth day after contact.

There have been reports of long queues at some Covid testing centres in Northern Ireland, with some facilities struggling to accommodate the number of students requiring a test to return to school.

Mr Givan said school principals are facing “huge pressure”.

He told the BBC: “They have the additional responsibility of managing a track and trace system. When I look at what is happening in Scotland there are dedicated centres that do that, it isn’t the requirement of principals.

“At the Executive yesterday, I was asking what is the Public Health Agency doing to provide simple information to be accessible at all times and what resources are being put in to those schools that are being overwhelmed so that principals, who have a huge job of work to do just to deliver an education system, are going to have that burden lifted from them.

“Schools ultimately have been asked to follow a self-isolation policy which every political party in the Executive supported.”

He added: “We need to be considering other options. Do we need to have PCR tests? Because there is huge demand now on getting those slots. Could we go back to a system of lateral flow testing? That is acceptable to access football matches and other facilities.

“Can that be something that is easily accessible and carried out at home by parents?

“In England and Wales there is no policy on track and trace and a self-isolation process; only if a child is unwell are they asked to stay at home. I think for the Executive on Thursday I’ll be wanting to have an update from the Department of Health.

“If the system can’t cope with the current policy, then I think the Executive needs to be considering all of the options because we need our children in school.”

Mr Lyttle said he has written to Sir Michael and the PHA to request that they attend Wednesday’s session of the Assembly Education Committee.

The Alliance Party education spokesman said: “What we need here is action and not talk, and I recalled the Assembly Education Committee last week to engage with the Northern Ireland Teaching Council.

“As Education Committee chair, I have also written, as agreed by MLAs on the committee, to ask the CMO and PHA to attend tomorrow’s session. We need greater clarity on what the evidence is behind the system we have in place, and whether the system is operating as it is supposed to.”

The Public Health Agency said it is aware of “significant demand” on Covid-19 PCR testing at both fixed and mobile sites.

It said: “The agency is working with DHSC and the Department of Health in Northern Ireland to look at all options for increasing availability of PCR testing for those who need it.

“Anyone seeking a PCR test is asked to be patient when trying to book a slot. Slots are added each day at 6pm for appointments the following day.

“PCR tests can also be ordered for home delivery through the same booking portal, which enables the test to be completed at home.”

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