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Sunderland's education chief reacts to 'premature' decision to axe all Covid restrictions calling it 'big concern for schools'

“Premature and a big concern for schools” – the view of Sunderland City Council’s education chief Cllr Louise Farthing following the Government’s decision to axe the legal requirement to self-isolate after contracting Covid and to phase out free testing for the virus.

By Neil Fatkin
Tuesday, 22nd February 2022, 1:32 pm

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Yesterday (February 21) in Parliament Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed the legal requirement to self-isolate for at least five days following a positive diagnosis will be axed from Thursday (February 24) while free widespread availability of public testing will cease from April 1.

Despite the latest Government data showing case rates for 10 to 14-year-olds of 432.1 cases per 100,000 people, the move marks the end of all Covid restrictions and two of the main remaining measures of mitigation to control the spread of Covid in schools.

While guidance to isolate remains, the city’s Cabinet Member for Education, Cllr Louise Farthing, has questioned the decision and the motivation behind it.

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She said: “I’m obviously concerned this decision is premature and made for political rather than public health reasons. We still have very high Covid levels in the North East which is circulating in schools which are still under a lot of pressure in terms of staffing.

"With different classes of children everyday, secondary teachers are particularly vulnerable to infection. Some of these teachers will have underlying health problems and we can’t afford to lose anymore teachers for whatever reason.”

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While accepting “in time” we may need to phase out the requirement to isolate, Cllr Farthing believes “it’s too early” and is particularly perplexed by the decision to abolish free testing.

Concerns have been raised about the impact the removal of Covid testing and the legal requirement to self-isolate could have on schools. Picture Michael Gillen.

She added: “The virus is still going to be in circulation. The ability to test and know if you have the virus is particularly important in environments such as schools where there are high levels of mixing.

"Tests should be free, particularly for people in face to face jobs such as teaching. I just feel this decisions could lead to more disruption in the long-run which will have an adverse impact on our children’s education.”

While case rates in schools are falling, the country’s biggest teaching union, the NASUWT, said it was a “real struggle to get to half-term” due to ongoing staffing issues.

Earlier this month Hetton School headteacher Craig Knowles took the decision for Year 8 students to temporarily work remotely due to staffing pressures.

Sunderland City Council's Cabinet Member for Education, Councillor Louise Farthing, believes the decision to axe remaining Covid restrictions is "premature" and could have an adverse affect on schools.

In a message to parents, Mr Knowles said: “Due to unprecedented levels of staff absence, I have been forced to take this decision. Over the past few days our staff absence has reached 25 per cent and despite our best efforts through combining classes and recruiting supply staff, we will be unable to staff Year

8 classes.”

With Government guidance still recommending people with Covid symptoms should “act responsibly” and “isolate for at least five days” if diagnosed, there are concerns any increase in circulation will prolong the problem for schools.

NASUWT North East National Executive John Hall said: "My understanding is the vast majority of our region’s schools will continue with mitigation measures including testing and following the guidance to isolate to keep staff and pupils safe.

"Health and Safety legislation trumps anything that Boris Johnson has said.”

Health Secretary Sajid Javid has described the decision to remove Covid restrictions as a "historic moment" and insisted the “time was right”.

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