Mass COVID testing to begin for East London schools

Students at schools in seven east London boroughs are set to be tested for COVID-19 in a bid to stop a surge in cases over Christmas.

They are thought to include Barking and Dagenham, Waltham Forest, Havering and Redbridge.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced that pupils would be offered testing as cases are rising faster among 11 to 18-year-olds than other age groups.

Councils are working with headteachers to get testing facilities set up near schools.

Last night plans were also signed off for testing sites at shopping centres in Westfield and Romford, which the London Fire Brigade will help run, Barking and Dagenham council leader Darren Rodwell said.

“We are seven London boroughs with the same population as Wales so the virus is spreading easily,” he said.

“We are those poorer east London boroughs and because of those demographics there have been people who do not want to be tested because of what that means for their jobs and families.

“Testing in schools is so important because we want everything in place that supports our community.

“Children have been very good in school but it’s what’s happening when they are leaving the school premises that’s the problem and where it’s spreading. So we need as many young people as possible to get tested.

“We heard the mayor got agreement from London Fire Brigade last night to assist with testing sites in Westfield, Romford and Lakeside so people can get tested while they are doing their Christmas shopping, with results in 30 minutes.

“We don’t want a situation where after Christmas we have even more cases and are doing everything to prevent that.”

With rising community transmission, teachers and pupils are thought to be bringing the virus into schools where other people are being infected.

There were 92 COVID incidents linked to schools in London in the week to December 6.

The tests, which will be voluntary, were announced as the city faces the risk of being moved into Tier 3 next week.

Ministers are reluctant to order such a step, partly given that the capital is the country’s economic powerhouse, but the number of confirmed cases is rising significantly in many boroughs.

On Thursday, headteachers discussed the logistics of mass testing in schools.

Ges Smith, headteacher of Jo Richardson Community School in Dagenham, said plans for a temporary testing station opposite his school are being put into place for early next week.

Students will be tested every couple of weeks with years 11, 12 and 13 having access to the rapid lateral flow tests, which provide results in 30 minutes.

“I welcome this announcement,” Mr Smith said.

“We are facing severe challenges in this part of London with staff and students having to self-isolate often and it has a knock on effect for parents and their work.

“We understand the virus is frightening for residents, students, staff. We are hoping we will have a temporary testing site opposite the school by next week.

“But we are also emphasising the need for testing after Christmas when many students will have been mixing more with family.

“It has been such a challenging time in education and we are doing everything we can.”

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Rachael Burford

Local Democracy Reporter