Covid-19 testing should be giving teachers the same level of reassurance about their health and safety that footballers have, first minister Nicola Sturgeon was told today.
The comparison came after Ms Sturgeon was unable to guarantee that a planned "surveillance testing" programme in schools – which would sample staff and pupils who are not displaying Covid-19 symptoms – would be ready for their return on 11 August.
After she confirmed that date today for schools' return – with all pupils in Scotland to be back by 18 August at the latest – Green co-leader Patrick Harvie said that surveillance testing was one of several measures that would be "absolutely vital" for the country to "rapidly identify and contain any new [Covid] outbreaks".
Mr Harvie said: "So I imagine I wasn't the only person this week who was a bit disturbed to hear the deputy first minister [and education secretary John Swinney] say on Monday that the enhanced surveillance testing might not, in fact, be in place by the time schools reopen – nobody here wants to see any new outbreak in schools, as has happened in other countries."
Today's statement: Sturgeon confirms 'full' return to school in August
Covid-19 testing: Schools need rapid tests to avoid flu confusion
Coronavirus: Swinney admits 'anxiety' about reopening schools
Mr Harvie asked the first minister for "a clear reassurance that the enhanced surveillance testing regime for schools will be in place, fully operational, by 11 August".
Coronavirus: Fears about schools' access to testing
Ms Sturgeon replied that, in schools, there would be priority "fast access to testing for any young person or teacher who has Covid symptoms", through the Test and Protect system.
On surveillance testing, she said "aspects of this will be in place when schools go back", but that other elements "will come into effect over the coming weeks", including "sample-based testing of young people and teachers who are not symptomatic".
Mr Harvie was concerned that "it feels as though we're about to repeat the same experience that we had in debating the role of testing in the social care sector", when "it took a long time to roll out routine regular testing".
He added that routine testing was in place "in other parts of the economy" and that "even footballers in some cases are being tested as often as four times a week".
Mr Harvie said: "It would be unacceptable if anyone said teachers should feel less secure going to work than footballers, so why does the first minister believe it's not necessary to offer routine regular testing to teachers and other school staff?"
Ms Sturgeon reiterated that the Test and Protect system would be in place and that the government had examined Covid outbreaks related to schools in other countries, such as Israel, and had decided that "the key thing we have to do to protect schools is to keep community transmission as low as possible".
She added that "surveillance in schools also gives us added assurance".
At a meeting of the Scottish Parliament's Education and Skills Committee on Monday, education secretary and deputy first minister John Swinney said that "we want to enhance the surveillance testing that is available in schools" through a system of "sample testing...across a wide cross-section of schools" in order to "ensure that we properly and fully monitor any changes in [Covid] patterns that may emerge as a consequence of the reopening of schools".
However, when asked at that meeting by Green education spokesperson Ross Greer whether he could guarantee that this system of surveillance testing would be ready for schools returning, Mr Swinney replied that "I cannot say definitively that it will be available on 11 August".
On the additional covid-19 surveillance programme for schools - this would be in “a sample of schools” and focus initially would be “children, young people and staff in S4, S5 and S6” pic.twitter.com/rRSWtTqjVC— Emma Seith (@Emma_Seith) July 30, 2020
New Scottish government guidance on reopening schools, published today, describes "an additional surveillance programme within a sample of schools", which would involve "working over a period of time with substantial numbers of children and workers at a representative sample of schools throughout Scotland".
The data gathered will "establish symptoms and infections in the school population to inform the ongoing development of guidance".
The guidance adds: "The principal focus of this, at least initially, would be children, young people and staff in S4, S5 and S6. Participation would be voluntary and careful consideration is being given to ensuring acceptability in school populations."