Covid test shortages are leaving children’s education "hanging by a thread" amid uncertainty over forced school closures.
Headteachers are concerned that difficulties in getting hold of lateral flow tests around the country could mean children return to online learning.
As cases of the omicron variant continue to increase, care homes, hospitals and businesses face a struggle to operate as normal because of demand for tests outstripping supply.
They are reporting staff absences caused not only by Covid but also by workers being unable to prove they are Covid negative because of the supply problems with tests.
Teachers and union representatives have warned that, should tests remain in short supply, it could result in further potential school closures.
There is a shortage of lateral flow tests in many areas
Credit: Darren Staples/Alamy Live News
Dr Mark Fenton, the chief executive of the Grammar School Heads Association, said: "The biggest concern is can we keep staff in school?
"The impact of not being able to do so is obviously going to be potentially very significant – and just at the time when we’ve got mock exams coming up for Year 11 and Year 13 students, which usually take place in January, so that’s additional pressure.
"There will come a point perhaps, if certain parts of the country are particularly badly affected and schools are finding it difficult to maintain learning for students, where they may have to consider reverting to what happened in 2020 and 2021.
"If you think about it, how many teachers does it take to close a school? Not that many, so schools are going to be forced online. And if they’re online, you might be able to maintain a relatively normal curriculum if teachers are not particularly ill with omicron and they’re able to carry on delivering online learning from home.
"You can see it might just be possible. But it’s all hanging by a bit of a thread at the moment, I would say."
‘There is a case for teachers being a priority group’
Dr Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: "Everyone’s saying that schools should be the first to open and the last to close, which is right. But if there is a shortage of lateral flow tests, then perhaps the Government should be thinking about which professions they would prioritise.
"And if schools are the top priority, as Boris Johnson has said they are, there is a case for teachers being a priority group so that they can test themselves, so they can be in school educating pupils. The Government will be judged in the end not on the words of ministers but on the actions they take to open schools and keep them open, by doing everything possible to suppress the transmission of the virus in schools."
Last month, the Government said all secondary school students in England will be asked to take a Covid test on site following the Christmas break.
In an email to schools on Friday, the Department for Education told leaders to order enough testing kits by Tuesday to make sure each pupil can take a rapid lateral flow test when they return in January. Testing all students "will help reduce transmission after a period of social mixing over the school holidays", it said.
The Gov.UK website showing PCR tests out of stock across the whole of England
Care homes: ‘We need to have a seamless service’
Despite there being no Government restrictions on care home visiting, some providers are taking matters into their own hands amid fears over omicron’s spread and an inability to test loved ones due to shortages.
Nadra Ahmed, the chairman of the National Care Association, said: "I am getting lots of messages about courier issues and people not picking up PCRs. It is taking four days to get PCR results in some cases and, by the time the results come through, that becomes an old test and it has to be repeated.
"We want to keep everyone safe – but in order to do that we need to have a seamless service. There is a pressure point on staffing, because we already have chronic staff shortages and that is being worsened by problems with testing.
"Agency nurses are not turning up, managers are having to work day shifts and night shifts just to keep the service covered – it has been horrendous. We continue to support families visiting where it is safe. but some providers have had to close to visitors, because they don’t have the staff to support safe visiting.
"If someone wants to take a resident out of the home, the resident has to be tested every other day for 10 days – and that needs test kits and it also needs staff to do them, so that is another pressure point."
Around 30,000 staff left the sector as a result of the mandatory vaccination policy, which, Ms Ahmed said had only increased the pressure on an embattled and short-staffed workforce.
Fully-vaccinated residents visiting family and friends outside the care home have to take a lateral flow test on alternate days for two weeks after each outing, while those not vaccinated have to isolate after an outside visit. Staff testing will be increased from two lateral flow tests a week to three, alongside a weekly PCR test.
Hospitality: Staff, as well as customers, need access to tests
Pubs, restaurants and hotels will miss out on all-important New Year trade if customers cannot get the tests Boris Johnson has said they should take in order to celebrate responsibly.
Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of UK Hospitality, said: "Trading is down and bookings are down, and there have been cancellations. We are still only seeing 50 to 60 per cent of the trade we would have in a normal New Year period, which is better than nothing – but demand is still suppressed.
"We need to make sure people have access to tests so they can continue to come to work as well as partying. If testing and boosters are our way out of this, we need to have enough tests so that the economy can keep going and for essential services to continue."
Empty tables and chairs outside a restaurant in Glasshouse Street, Soho, London on Wednesday
Credit: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire
Hospital workers struggle to access tests
Even NHS staff are unable to access Covid tests promptly. Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, said: "Trust leaders are reporting delays in the return of PCR test results and problems accessing lateral flow tests.
"Given the current pressures on the NHS due to staff absences, it’s vital that NHS staff get prompt access to the tests they need to ensure they can return to work as quickly as possible.
"Government, national NHS leaders and local NHS leaders, some of whom operate PCR testing capacity, need to work together rapidly to identify and resolve any issues, including looking at whether we need to reserve dedicated testing capacity for NHS staff for a period."
One hospital doctor based in the Midlands, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: "There are many staff who now need to access lateral flow tests from community pharmacies, as their own hospital stock has run out.
"But the staff cannot return to work until they have a negative lateral flow tests. Therefore the number of staff absences may not just be because of Covid or self-isolating rules, but also the lack of lateral flow tests kits. My staffing level here is low, but we can still function…not sure for how long."
Patients have to take a Covid test three days before entering hospitals for procedures. All NHS staff are expected to carry out twice-weekly lateral flow testing.
PCR and lateral flow tests compared
Businesses: Lack of tests could worsen staff shortages
It is not just the absences and staff shortages which are impacting the economy – businesses are warning that a lack of tests will hamper their ability to stick to government guidelines.
Roger Barker, the director of policy at the Institute of Directors, said: "Given the Government’s reliance on vaccination and testing rather than additional restrictions, consistent access to lateral flow and PCR tests is essential to keeping businesses running and maintaining consumer confidence.
"Shortages of tests risk worsening businesses’ existing staff shortages and undermining compliance with recommended testing protocols."
Martin McTague, the vice-chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, said that as increasing numbers of pharmacies "are now running dry" of lateral flow tests, "we will continue to see businesses struggling with widespread staff shortages".
He added: "In finding a solution to the current lack of sufficient supply of test kits, the Government should include in the plan a reintroduction of free workplace testing kits for small employers, to protect employees, businesses, and the functioning of the economy."