The rollout of daily Covid contact testing in schools has been paused amid fears over higher rates of transmission from the new variant of the disease and following widespread concern over the accuracy of tests.
However, the weekly testing of staff will continue – with testing increased to twice weekly in secondary schools. Primary schools started receiving tests this week for staff to test twice a week.
The key part of the mass testing scheme was daily lateral flow tests for pupils and staff who had been in close contact with a positive Covid case. Those who tested negative could stay in the classroom rather than have to isolate.
Daily contact testing continues to have the potential to be a valuable tool … we will continue pilots to build the evidence base for the programme
However Public Health England announced today that “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”.
PHE said as the new variant of Covid has “higher rates of transmission and hence generates a higher secondary attack rate … 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”.
Alongside NHS Test and Trace, PHE will now conduct “structured evaluation of daily contact testing as part of a wider evaluation of daily contact testing in a range of private and public settings”.
The Department for Education will support the evaluation so that the findings can “contribute to further public health advice on daily contact testing in educational settings”.
A department spokesperson 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.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of Schools and College Leaders (ASCL), said the union is “relieved” by the decisions as “this use of these tests never really made sense”.
He added the government’s latest U-turn will have “thoroughly confused parents, pupils and the wider public” called for clarity on the limitations of the test and for the government to review “the practical implications of mass testing in secondary schools and colleges”.
Government’s own advisers warned of ‘hypothetical risk’
During yesterday’s parliamentary education committee Dr Dougal Hargreaves, the Department for Education deputy scientific adviser, admitted there was “at least a hypothetical risk of increasing transmission”, and the use of tests in schools would be evaluated in the coming weeks.
Last week several local public health directors advised schools not to follow government guidance to conduct daily contact testing on close contact instead of sending them home to self-isolate.
In a letter sent to headteachers this week, Hertfordshire County Council recommended “in common with other directors of public health … pupils and staff who are close contacts of a positive case continue to self-isolate at home for 10 days”.
Academy trusts were likewise advising their schools against following the guidance.
Jon Chaloner, chief executive of GLF Schools, explained it had shared concerns about close contact testing replacing isolation with its 41 schools and had “no current plans to implement this part of the testing programme.”
While a study conducted by Oxford University and Public Health England found the Innova test used in schools was 76.8 per cent accurate when identifying positive cases, more recent studies suggested it to be less accurate.
For example, during a community mass testing pilot in Liverpool, just 40 per cent of cases were detected.
Forest Gate Community School in Newham has conducted over 200 tests without receiving a single positive or invalid test result.
Simon Elliott, chief executive of the Community Schools Trust which runs the school, said a staff member “trying to ascertain if the test was somehow broken” received a positive result after swabbing their coffee.
Elliott added: “We’re really concerned that they may be a monumental waste of time and that it may create a false sense of security in people who have got a negative test.”
PHE has asked for schools or colleges who have found daily contact testing helpful and would like to take part in the evaluation to contact the NHS Test and Trace evaluation team at firstname.lastname@example.org