COVID-19: Plans for daily testing in schools put on hold over worries about accuracy

January 20, 2021

Plans for daily tests in schools are being halted amid warnings about the accuracy of lateral flow tests.

The rapid turnaround tests were due to be used to keep pupils and staff in school if they had come into contact with a positive case.

Under the original plan, students would not need to self-isolate if they agreed to be tested once a day for seven days.

Whilst the use of lateral flow tests is not subject to approval by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) if they are properly supervised, many scientists and the World Health Organisation had warned against their use in this way.

In December, the government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) said that "lateral flow testing should not be seen as a way on its own of enabling high-risk activities to take place".

Dougal Hargreaves, the Department for Education's deputy chief scientific advisor, said on Tuesday that the use of rapid lateral flow devices daily in schools carried a "hypothetical risk of increasing transmission".

Public Health England and NHS Test and Trace have recommended the government "pause" the testing programme because the "balance between the risks" for daily testing is "unclear".

They also warned that higher rates of transmission because of the new variant of COVID-19 could impact schools.

The government accepted the recommendation to suspend the scheme in "all but a small number of secondary schools and colleges" where it will continue alongside "detailed evaluation".

However, lateral flow tests will continue to be used to test students when they return to school and to test staff twice a week to identify asymptomatic coronavirus cases.

A government spokesperson said there is "no change to the main rollout of regular testing" and that daily testing as an alternative to pupils self-isolating still has the "potential to be a valuable tool".

In an open letter, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson thanked school and college leaders for showing "flexibility and resilience during this challenging period".

"Testing remains a vital part of our plan to suppress this virus, and the widespread rollout of regular testing using rapid lateral flow tests is already proving beneficial in finding people with coronavirus before they develop symptoms," he said.

But critics accuse him of another U-turn after changes in policy on exam results, school closures and free school meals.

Last week shadow education secretary Kate Green called on Mr Williamson to resign, calling his record during the pandemic "shambolic".

"He has bounced from one crisis to another without learning from his mistakes or listening to the parents, pupils and hard-working education staff who have been left to deal with the fallout," she said.

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