Why chatter at the school gate about test and trace spells trouble for the UK government

Parents are struggling to work out what to do while waiting for children's Covid-19 test results. 

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Has your child had a test yet? That’s the question already dominating conversations on school WhatsApp groups and among parents. The procedure in most schools is simple: if your child shows any symptoms of Covid-19, they and the rest of your household must self-isolate, either for 14 days or until they receive a negative test result, if it arrives sooner. 

But because England’s test and trace system is struggling to keep up with the growing demand for coronavirus tests among the general population, in practice, many parents worry that 14 days is a more likely timeframe than “until you get a negative test result”.

This is two problems, not one. The first is the logistical challenge of running a test and trace system that is capable of providing sufficient numbers of tests and effectively tracing contacts, while also providing economic support that ensures households do self-isolate. As Dido Harding, the head of test and trace in England, has herself argued, the UK’s inadequate sick pay provisions are themselves a major viral risk. If you can work from home, you will self-isolate; if you cannot, and the choice is between staying at home or losing out on pay, you are not going to self-isolate.

The second problem is next summer’s challenge (and potentially the one after that, and after that), which concerns what frequent interruption to schooling means for pupils' exams. The reality is that, however good your test and trace infrastructure is, until medical treatment advances to the point that you can combat the novel coronavirus through means other than self-isolation or lockdown, children are going to miss out on school. If the government succeeds in its aim of avoiding a second national lockdown, then that success will produce stark regional inequalities as far as exam results are concerned.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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