The Department for Education (DfE) is no longer encouraging school staff to undergo Covid testing within 90 days of a positive result after schools said it could needlessly force more teachers to isolate.

Staff are currently able to take up to two rapid lateral flow tests per week as part of the mass testing regime to pick up Covid cases among those who do not have symptoms.

People with symptoms are still advised to get a PCR [polymerase chain reaction] test, which is considered the “gold standard”. Furthermore, primary staff who test positive with a rapid test are advised to get this confirmed by taking a PCR test.

Department for Education guidance had previously stated it would “encourage staff to take an LFD [lateral flow device] test regardless of whether they have tested positive” from a PCR test within the last 90 days.

But this contrasted with advice issued to health officials who were also taking part in similar mass testing regimes. Health workers were told anybody who has tested positive from a PCR test should avoid taking a rapid test for the 90-day period – unless they developed new symptoms.

The issue was flagged to the Department for Education by one trust which said the guidance could create staffing shortages because of the risk of a false positive.

Schools were told yesterday the advice has now been changed “to align the education sector guidance with the rest of the lateral flow device antigen testing guidance issued by NHS Test and Trace”.

Contrasting guidance from health officials

The move came after the Robin Hood Multi Academy Trust (RHMAT), in Birmingham, had already decided to follow the NHS advice.

Guidance from Public Health England (PHE) for staff and patients in health and social care settings states they should be “exempt from routine re-testing by PCR [polymerase chain reaction] or LFD antigen tests” for 90 days unless they develop new symptoms.

It explains this is because “fragments of inactive virus can be persistently detected”.

Testing guidance published by Barts Health NHS Trust warns taking an LFD “may give a false positive result if you have recently had Covid-19”.

John McDermott, finance and operation director at RHMAT, said the trust had taken the decision to follow NHS advice “on the basis that they are medical professionals”.

Trust chief executive Steve Taylor also said if staff were made to take a rapid test, and it generated a false positive, the trust would face staffing issues with teachers having to isolate – potentially needlessly.

In November, a number of schools were forced to shut their doors due the number of teachers forced to self-isolate.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said the apparent contradiction in guidance about lateral flow tests was “yet another complication over their use in education settings”.

But the DfE advice urging schools to promote rapid tests for anyone within 90 days of a positive result has been removed.

Guidance now states that “individuals are exempt from testing by both PCR and LFD within 90 days of a positive PCR test unless they develop new symptoms”.

Currently, primary school staff take tests at home. A positive result must be confirmed with a PCR test.

Secondary school staff, who take tests on site, don’t have to confirm a positive with a PCR test. Guidance states this is because “the performance of lateral flow devices and PCRs are broadly comparable when used at test sites, significantly reducing the need for routine confirmatory testing”.

In January the government paused the rollout of daily Covid contact testing in schools amid fall-out over the accuracy of the tests.