Departmental officials will be liaising with the education sector in the coming days to discuss operational preparation and delivery with a view to rolling out the programme in the coming weeks.
The Departments said that around one in three people who are infected with Covid-19 have no symptoms and could be spreading the disease without knowing it. Broadening testing to identify those showing no symptoms will mean finding positive cases more quickly and thus assisting in breaking chains of transmission of infection.
Initially, all post-primary staff (including teaching and support staff) and older students in Years 12-14 in schools and in Education Other Than at School (EOTAS) centres will be included in this programme of regular testing, which will use Lateral Flow Device (LFD) tests.
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Expansion of testing to other staff in primary and pre-school settings will be rolled out in later phases.
The testing will start during the forthcoming summer term.
Health Minister Robin Swann said: “I am delighted to announce the expansion of our regular testing programme for staff and older pupils. This testing is important as an additional measure alongside the range of existing safety measures in place to help ensure the safety of staff and pupils in schools.
“Whilst the use of LFD tests is important as an additional measure, a negative LFD test result does not enable an individual to drop their guard and people should not change their behaviours.
“My Department is continuing to work with partners in government and industry on further expansion of our programme of regular asymptomatic testing which, alongside our vaccination and contact tracing programmes, will help balance the scales in our favour of success in the battle against Covid-19.”
Testing for schools’ staff and pupils will be twice weekly three to four days apart using LFD tests. Older students in years 12-14 are included as prevalence of Covid-19 tends to be higher among this group.
Education Minister Peter Weir said: “Today’s announcement is very welcome news and will provide a significant level of reassurance to schools, pupils and parents alike. Initially, testing will be available to all staff in post-primary schools and pupils in years 12 to 14.
“The roll out of this testing programme will provide reassurance for pupils and teachers that the risk of large groups of exam year classes having to isolate during this important period, will be considerably reduced.
“It has always been my preference that all pupils should be in the classroom to benefit from face to face teaching and I welcome the plan to roll out testing for Year 12-14 students as soon as practicable.”
Individuals who receive a positive result from an LFD test will have to isolate along with members of their households from the time of their positive LFD result. A confirmation PCR test will be required for everyone who tests positive on LFD. If the PCR test result is negative, the individual and their household can leave isolation and no further action is required. If the PCR test result is positive the individual and their household and all other close contacts must complete a full 10 days of self-isolation.
A number of different schools are not included in the plans, including Special schools where asymptomatic testing using LAMP is already agreed and being rolled out.
Youth Services meanwhile are currently being scoped by DoH for further consideration.