Mass testing in schools (update)

UNISON’s National Schools Committee and representatives of UNISON’s Further Education committee met with Department for Education (DfE) and NHS Test and Trace officials yesterday.

Concerns were raised regarding the Government’s plans for mass testing of school staff and pupils in secondary schools and colleges in England in January 2021.

Amongst a host of issues the Committee highlighted concerns about the reliability of the proposed tests, numbers and roles of staff that would be involved, potential increased workloads, full training, availability of appropriate PPE, face coverings and the roll out of the programme to Primary and Special Schools.

In particular the Committee made clear that whilst we support the use of mass testing in schools, that due to concerns with the high rate of false negative lateral flow test results , this test should not be used as an alternative to self-isolation of close contacts and bubbles following confirmed Covid-19 cases.

The British Medical Journal, World Health Organisation,  Royal
Society of Statisticians and Royal College of Pathologists have all warned that these tests can miss a substantial proportion of cases and should not be used alone to identify the infection.

Biostatistician Professor Jon Deeks said he was ‘surprised at how bad’ the Innova Tried & Tested lateral flow kits performed in his trial of more than 7,000 students at the University of Birmingham.

MailOnline news article (Connor Boyd and Sam Blanchard 22 December 2020)

Additionally, government figures from a mass testing pilot in Liverpool in over 5,000 people without symptoms showed that up to half of positives were missed, which included up to 30% who had high viral loads and so had a higher risk of infecting others. Recent press reports have also suggested that  some of these community based pilots may be suspended whilst further analysis is carried out.

UNISON calls on the DfE not to rush ahead with the programme in January, but to work with schools on a sensible timetable.

It is also vital that the Department amends its mass testing guidance to make clear that schools should use testing only as an ‘additional’ measure to identify potential asymptomatic cases and not  as an alternative to self-isolation of all close contacts and bubbles.

DfE communications should also explain that the lateral flow test cannot confirm that an individual has not been infected with Covid-19, as this could lead to a false sense of security by people who test negative, which could lead them to unintentionally spread the virus.

We also call on the DfE to advise schools to continue online learning in January beyond the first week currently proposed.  Full re-opening should only commence when schools and local public health authorities  are  satisfied that  local infection rates are at levels which make it safe for staff, pupils and communities  to return. We continue to call on government to rapidly expand the provision of laptop and internet access to ensure that all pupils have access to online learning.

UNISON’s Schools Committee previously agreed that:

    • We support mass testing in schools to try stop the spread of the virus (on a sensible timetable)
    • Any testing site in a school must be fully planned and risk assessedwith union engagement
    • Staff should only undertake the testing duty if they volunteer, and if they are comfortable with their competence after appropriate training – in line with Department for Education guidance ‘Supporting pupils at school with medical conditions’.
    • Staff involved in the testing programme should have correct PPE, appropriate clinical oversight and clear guarantees around any potential liabilities
    • The work of staff volunteering to participate should not be passed to other current staff, who are already overworked.
    • Any additional staff time must be fully paid at the appropriate rate
    • Due to reported high percentages of false negatives generated by the ‘lateral flow test’ being proposed, it should only be used as an additional measure.
      Bubbles and self-isolation, alongside all additional other safety measures, should be retained for the foreseeable future.
    • Staff asked to take a test themselves  as part of a mass lateral flow testing programme where cases have not been identified, may do so voluntarily, but it should not be compulsory. UNISON  will encourage staff to participate fully in the testing programme, subject to the above points.


‘In the meantime, stay safe and enjoy the time with your family and friends socially distancing. Looking forward to 2021 with less challenges’



Now more than ever, you need the support of your union.

Although we have to maintain social distance, we do have the capacity to hold ‘virtual’ meetings.  If you want to discuss issues of concern as part of a group, please email the branch and we will make the arrangements.

Alternatively email the branch to arrange a one-to-one discussion.

Stay Safe!