Members of the armed forces will be deployed to support coronavirus testing operations for thousands of school and college students in England, as schools prepare to roll out Covid-19 tests in the new year.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) said 1,500 military personnel would be drafted in to make sure testing systems were up and running for the new term.
Plans have been announced for a round of mass testing for secondary school and college students at the start of next term, to faciliate the return to school.
This was revealed days after plans were announced for weekly Covid-19 rapid tests for secondary school and college staff and daily ones for students and staff identified as close contacts of a positive case from January.
Helping with testing preparations for next month, the majority of military personnel will form local response teams, providing support and phone advice to institutions needing guidance on the testing process and set-up of the testing facilities.
According to the MoD, support from military personnel will be done "predominantly through webinars and individual meetings", but teams would also be on standby to provide in-person support at short notice.
Students will swab themselves in the vast majority of cases, under the supervision of a school staff member or volunteer who has been trained for the role, and teachers are not expected to take a role in the testing process.
The MoD added that schools and colleges would shortly be provided with further information on how to request additional support if necessary.
The decision follows successful testing pilots conducted in schools in November and December and the work is being done in conjunction with the Department for Education (DfE) and Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).
The armed forces were previously recruited to assist with pilot mass testing schemes in Liverpool in November.
“The UK armed forces are stepping up once again this holiday,” Ben Wallace, the defence secretary said. “They'll share considerable experience of testing across the country and the successful school pilots conducted this autumn.”
Meanwhile, Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said: "It is a true cross-government effort to make sure secondary schools and colleges have the support, guidance, materials and funding they need to offer rapid testing to their staff and students from the start of term.
"I am grateful to the armed forces personnel, and all the school and college staff, leaders and volunteers working to put testing in place. This will help break chains of transmission, fight the virus, and help deliver the national priority of keeping education open for all."
The government has announced that most secondary school and college pupils' return to class in England would be staggered in the first week of January to help rollout the mass testing of students, while primary schools would go back as normal.
Michael Gove threw the full reopening of schools into doubt on Monday, amid reports government scientists had recommended schools stay close to prevent coronavirus from spiralling out of control. The cabinet minister said discussions were ongoing with headteachers and teachers to make sure plans were “right and robust”.
A meeting was held between ministers, Downing Street officials and the Department for Education (DfE) on Monday, but the DfE would not comment on its outcome.
Plans and the timescale to implement testing have previously been criticised as “unrealistic" by a leading education union.
A professor has also raised concerns over the planned use of lateral flow devices to test pupils in schools, saying research showed “poor performance” during the mass asymptomatic testing of University of Birmingham students.
Additional reporting by Press Association