People struggling to get lateral flow tests for Covid “should just refresh” their webpage, the education secretary has suggested, as concerns mount over the impact of the Omicron variant on the country’s workforce.
Nadhim Zahawi told Sky News he had organised a separate supply of tests for schools in England ahead of children’s return to the classrooms, amid requests they take at least two a week.
But when it was put to the cabinet minister that shortages of tests were still being reported intermittently across the country, he said: “If people feel that they can’t get a supply they should just refresh their webpage.”
Zahawi said supply had been increased to 300m a month and delivery capacity trebled to 900,000 a day.
In addition to testing, the government will ask secondary students in England to wear masks in classrooms once again. And it was announced that an additional 7,000 air cleaning units will be provided to schools, colleges and early years settings to improve ventilation in teaching spaces.
Classes could be merged if the number of school staff off sick grew too high, the education secretary has said.
He told Sky News: “The priority is to keep schools open. The testing, the staffing support we’re putting in place, and of course the ventilation is going to make a big difference to schools this year. The most important thing is to keep them open.
“We monitor staff absenteeism, I just said to you we’re running at about 8% last year. If that rises further then we look at things like merging classes, teaching in bigger numbers.”
But Zahawi repeated the government line that “there’s nothing in the data” to suggest further coronavirus measures will be needed later this week.
He told BBC Breakfast that plan B measures would be reviewed on Wednesday, but added: “There’s nothing in the data that gives me any concern that we need to go beyond where we are at.
“There’s some really good data from London that it looks like the infection rates are plateauing, if not yet coming down. But we are seeing leakage into the over-50s in terms of infections, and it’s generally the over-50s who end up with severe infection and hospitalisation.”
Zahawi moved to reassure patients that the NHS is “very good at being able to move staff around”, amid fears over shortages in the health service.
He said the NHS was used to dealing with staff being off over the winter and during “big flu viruses”.
He told BBC Breakfast: “The NHS is very good at being able to move staff around within the system. They have an infrastructure to do that. We now have 10,000 more nurses and 3,000 more doctors than we had last year working in the NHS.
“But the NHS is very good at sort of making sure that staff shortages are monitored and dealt with pretty well. They’ve done it over many years in winter when we’ve been, you know, have big flu viruses around.”