Union says teachers in England being told to pause Covid app in school

Some teachers are being told to disable the government’s Covid test-and-trace system while in school and to disregard notifications in order to reduce the number of staff required to self-isolate, a union has claimed.

The NASUWT said it had received numerous reports from concerned teachers across England, including one case where the instruction was based on advice provided by the local public health team.

There continues to be widespread disruption in classrooms, with staff shortages forcing some schools forced to close as pupils and teachers test positive for Covid and many others have to self-isolate after coming into contact with them.

The NASUWT’s general secretary, Dr Patrick Roach, has written to the health secretary, Matt Hancock, expressing his concern about any instructions to teachers to pause the app, warning that it could lead to increased transmission of the virus. He has called on the government to issue immediate clarification to all schools and public health teams.

Under current government guidance, staff are told they can pause the app when their phone is in a locker, when they are fully protected behind Perspex or are wearing medical-grade PPE. The NASUWT claims heads are asking staff to disable the app the whole time they are in school.

One email from a public health official at Wirral council said: “Given that we now have a well-established local system for contact-tracing of school-notified cases, we are recommending that you advise any staff/pupils that have downloaded the NHS Covid-19 app to pause the contact-tracing function of that app while they are on the school premises.”

It has previously been reported that teachers in Aberdeen were told to switch off the contact-tracing function while in schools. A letter seen by BBC Scotland asked staff to switch off the software, saying the app did not take into account mitigations that were in place.

Roach said: “The government rightly states that the NHS test-and-trace app is a key part of the UK’s Covid-19 response. Instructions for the use of the app clearly state it should switched on at all times in schools unless the phone is in a locker.

“It beggars belief that some schools are disregarding such clear instructions and it is deeply worrying that local public health teams appear to be giving similar advice. Even more concerning is that some teachers are being told to disregard app notifications to self-isolate, apparently in order to reduce the numbers of staff and pupils self-isolating.

“Schools and authorities overriding advice are putting at risk the safety and the lives of teachers and pupils and risking much larger outbreaks. Ministers must act swiftly and with clarity to ensure that schools are following the correct guidance at all times and teachers have the app switched on in schools.”

The Department of Health and Social Care has been contacted for comment.

A Wirral council spokesperson said: “The advice given was based on a well-established national approach to minimising the potential for false notifications of close contact with a case. Wirral schools have a very effective local process for contact-tracing when cases are notified on their premises and the advice issued to headteachers clearly states that the contact-tracing toggle on the app should be turned back on as soon as they leave the school setting.”

Meanwhile, local authorities are concerned that the pandemic is fuelling a rise in the number of parents choosing to take their child out of school to home-educate.

According to the Local Government Association (LGA), there have been increases of up to 200% in the number of home-education registrations in some areas this term, compared with last year. The increase is thought to be linked to health fears and increasing numbers of pupils having to stay out of school and self-isolate.

The LGA has called on the government to introduce its proposed new duty on councils to maintain a register of children not in school, and a new duty on parents to provide information if their child is not attending a mainstream school.

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