Teachers’ union says members have been asked to disable the NHS COVID-19 contract-tracing app to reduce the number of school staff being required to seld-isolate.
NASUWT has claimed that school headteachers and even the public health teams of local councils have been telling school staff to either switch off their phone, disable the app or ignore any notifications they receive regarding self-isolating.
Under the current government guidance, teachers, teaching assistants and other school staff can pause the contact-tracing part of the app when their phone is in a locker, when they are protected either by a protective screen or wearing medical-grade PPE.
The alleged instructions to staff to disable or disregard the app at all times comes after reports of shortages of school staff forcing schools to close following COVID-19 outbreaks.
NASUWT general secretary Dr Patrick 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.”
He went on to say it was “even more concerning” that teachers were being instructed to disregard notifications from the app to self-isolate, which he said was putting lives at risk and could potentially lead to much larger outbreaks. The knock-on effect would therefore “lead to far more pupils and teachers self-isolating than would be required if the app was followed,” he said.
“The government’s test and trace system is already beset with problems, and 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 BBC previously reported that teachers in Aberdeen were being advised to switch the app off, while reports in the Guardian stated that public health officials in Wirral had been recommending that the contract-tracing function of the app be turned off while on school premises.
The Department for Health and Social Care said in a statement: “The NHS Covid-19 app is a key tool in our pandemic response, working to break the chain of transmission as quickly as possible to stop the spread of the virus and protect our loved ones. It’s crucial that people self-isolate when instructed to do so by the app.
“The more people who download it, the better it works and we encourage people to keep the contact tracing functionality switched on for as much of the time as possible.”
Data published last week by the Office for National Statistics showed that the COVID-19 infection rate was the highest among secondary school-age pupils than any other age group. In response, Dr Mary Bousted, National Education Union joint secretary, urged the government to do more to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 in schools.
Dr Bousted said: “The situation is untenable and widespread disruption will continue unless the government takes steps to get coronavirus under control in schools.
“Schools have gone to great lengths to make themselves as safe as possible but there is only so much they can do on their own. We put forward a ten-point plan in June with suggestions including hiring additional space and teachers to reduce class sizes.
“More recently we have put forward ideas to enable social distancing in schools through the use of rotas for older secondary school pupils. All these suggestions were ignored.
“Schools have been given inadequate advice – more often than not delivered at the last minute – and with no additional funding.”
The National Education Union has also drawn attention to the latest school attendance figures, which show almost two-thirds of secondary schools had children self-isolating – an increase of 38% since last week. The amount of primary schools with pupils self-isolating also doubled, from 11% to 22%.
Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: “The Government squandered the opportunity to get the level of coronavirus infection down in schools by including them in a circuit breaker.
“They have failed to make testing available quickly enough, done nothing to reduce class sizes to reduce transmission networks and not even begun to prepare for the possible introduction of school rotas.
“Schools and families are now having to deal with the reality of rapidly increasing disruption in schools as coronavirus infection spreads through the school population.”