The Government’s programme to test pupils and staff daily in secondary schools and colleges as an alternative to self-isolation will be “paused” in the latest in a string of U-turns.
Public Health England (PHE) and NHS Test and Trace recommended that the daily testing in schools and colleges was paused as they said the balance between the risks and benefits were “unclear” in light of the new variant.
The Government has 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”.
A joint statement from PHE and NHS Test and Trace warned that the new variant of Covid-19 has shown to have “higher rates of transmission”, which increases the risk of transmission everywhere – “including in school settings”.
But schools and colleges will continue to test their staff regularly (twice weekly) and test students twice upon their return to school in a bid to identify those who have coronavirus but do not have symptoms.
The Department for Education’s (DfE) plan to test college and secondary school pupils and staff daily if they came into contact with cases of Covid-19 to improve attendance had been called into question by experts.
Under the scheme, pupils and staff who were in close contact with someone who has tested positive would be tested for seven days and they would be allowed to remain in school if the test was negative.
A statement from PHE and NHS Test and Trace on Wednesday said: “The balance between the risks (transmission of virus in schools and onward to households and the wider community) and benefits (education in a face-to-face and safe setting) for daily contact testing is unclear.
“In light of this changing situation, we now recommend that the rollout of daily contact testing within schools is paused, other than for schools involved in further evaluation.
“This will enable the further detailed evaluation of changing circumstances including, potentially, lower infection rates and modelling work required to understand the benefits of daily contact testing in this new phase of the pandemic.”
It came after Dougal Hargreaves, the DfE’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”.
He said: “If you are in a very high prevalence area, people are very nervous about the idea that people who have been in contact with an infected case are still attending school whether that is staff or pupils.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “We are relieved that lateral flow tests have now been paused as an alternative to self-isolation for individuals who have been in close contact with someone who has coronavirus.
“This use of these tests never really made sense because they don’t detect all those with the infection, so we could potentially have ended up with more infectious people in school than under the self-isolation system where close contacts are sent home.”
He added: “It is important to understand that this issue is about one specific use of these tests.
“We support the principle of using them for general mass testing of students and staff because this process should pick up at least a proportion of asymptomatic cases and improve safety.
“Our concern was purely over the idea of using them as a worse alternative to the existing self-isolation system for close contacts.
“Unfortunately, the Government’s insistence on first trying to use them in this way and then having to do yet another policy reversal will have thoroughly confused parents, pupils and the wider public.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “It is good news that the Government has finally recognised the advice of health experts and come to the correct conclusion on this matter.
“But once again, it is professionals on the front line who are left unsure which way to face following another Government U-turn, and who are deeply frustrated at the regularity of chaotic announcements emanating from the centre.”
A Government spokesman said: “Following pilots and on the advice of NHS Test and Trace, daily contact testing as a replacement to self-isolation was rolled out to keep children in school as much as possible.
“NHS Test and Trace and Public Health England have reviewed their advice, and concluded that in light of the higher prevalence and rates of transmission of the new variant, further evaluation work is required to make sure it is achieving its aim of breaking chains of transmission and reducing cases of the virus in the community.
“We are therefore pausing daily contact testing in all but a small number of secondary schools and colleges, where it will continue alongside detailed evaluation.”
He added: “Daily contact testing, used as an alternative to up to a whole class having to isolate if a positive case is detected, continues to have the potential to be a valuable tool to keep more young people and staff at school, the best place for students’ development and wellbeing.
“We will continue pilots to gather further data and to build the evidence base for the programme.
“Regular testing of staff will increase to twice weekly as further reassurance and to help break chains of transmission during this period.”