Researchers hope a coronavirus test that does not require a swab of the throat may be available by the time schools in England reopen in September.
Experts have been talking to officials about how to use testing to understand Covid-19 transmission and hope to have a better test by the start of the school year.
Helen Ward, professor of public health at the School of Public Health, Imperial College London, said that as lockdown measures are eased, and local outbreaks become possible, communication about the situation needs to become more nuanced.
She was asked about what is available to help with fast, reliable detection of cases and could be made available by September when pupils are due to return to classrooms.
Speaking at the Imperial global science policy forum, Prof Ward said: “We know that young people and the under 18s get exposed and some of them get unwell, but mostly they don’t get unwell with this virus.
“But it does look as if they’re no less likely to get it than anyone else and therefore they probably are transmitting this – schools are great places for transmitting viruses – and we always get the seasonal patterns of infectious diseases, particularly respiratory infections.”
She added there is always a surge in infections after schools reopen in September, and universities return in October, so thinking about how to have rapid detection is a “key question”.
The professor said it is difficult in schools at the moment as the swab tests for Covid-19 are quite invasive.
“If you stick a swab up your nose or down the back of your throat, it will induce coughing, which then if you are infected is dangerous.
“We’re hoping to get the saliva tests or other tests so that you could actually do rapid regular testing in workplaces, schools, airports.
“We’re not quite there yet, but by September hopefully we will have far more technologies in place.”
She further told the forum that a clear message to the public is necessary in order to prevent a second spike in coronavirus cases.
It is also important for people to trust what policymakers are saying.
Prof Ward said: “I think we have to continue this idea that we support people socially and economically through what we’re asking people to do, so that builds some trust.
“I think we need to have stronger voices of scientists around why it is so important.
“I do think that having the education and increasing science literacy and health literacy around this so people believe it. If people don’t believe that, they need to do this, then they won’t.
“Mixed messages is a real challenge. We need to have very clear messages and it does get more complex as the response becomes more subtle.”
Prof Ward said that while it is easy to tell people to lock down, it is more difficult to tell them the virus can be found, a ring can be put around it and it can be suppressed.
She explained: “I think you do need this balance – which is part of public health historically – of encouragement and health promotion, and the enforcement as required.
“But to do that, you need to build this trust.”