School pupils will only be advised to self-isolate for three days if they test positive for Covid-19 from Friday, under new government guidance published this week.
However, parents are being advised to keep children who are unwell with a high temperature at home until they get better.
The legal requirement to self-isolate was scrapped in late February, and since then children have been advised to follow the same guidance as adults, which was to isolate for at least five days.
In an email to headteachers on Thursday, the Department for Education said from April 1, adults with a positive Covid-19 test result should “try to stay at home and avoid contact with other people for five days, which is when they are most infectious”.
For children and young people aged 18 and under, “the advice will be three days”.
The changes come despite the latest DfE attendance data showing that Covid-related pupil absences trebled in just two weeks, and almost one in 10 teachers remain absent.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT school leaders’ union, said heads would be “very worried about the government’s decision to go ahead with a further loosening of measures at a time when covid cases are rising rapidly in schools”.
‘We can manage the virus like other respiratory infections’
The DfE told heads the population “now has much stronger protection against Covid-19 than at any other point in the pandemic”.
“This means we can begin to manage the virus like other respiratory infections, thanks to the success of the vaccination programme and access to antivirals, alongside natural immunity and increased scientific and public understanding about how to manage risk.”
However, the government has said that children and young people who are “unwell and have a high temperature” should “stay at home and avoid contact with other people”.
“They can go back to school, college or childcare when they no longer have a high temperature, and they are well enough to attend.”
Free tests scrapped for all schools
The government has also confirmed that schools will no longer be able to order free lateral-flow test kits, after announcing an end to weekly testing for special school and alternative provision pupils and staff.
Twice-weekly home testing advice was removed for mainstream schools last month, but kept in place for specialist settings. But the DfE confirmed this week it would end for specialist settings from Friday.
In its email to heads, the DfE said regular asymptomatic testing was “no longer recommended in any education or childcare setting”.
“Therefore, settings will no longer be able to order test kits.”
Special and AP schools had previously been able to order test kits for pupils and staff, and mainstream schools were still able to order kits to manage local outbreaks.
Don’t hand out surplus tests, schools told
The DfE said schools may have “surplus stock of self-test kits that are no longer required”, but has told them not to hand out any more to staff, pupils or students “unless advised by your local health protection team, local authority or director of public health”.
Expired stock “is classified as municipal waste and may be disposed of with other waste”.
The end of testing for special and AP schools comes despite government data showing specialist settings continue to be impacted more severely by Covid disruption.
Special schools reported a Covid absence rate of 4.3 per cent last week, compared to 2.5 per cent across all state schools. Special school teacher absence was 11.3 per cent, compared to 9.1 per cent across all schools.
Whiteman said it was “nothing short of reckless to be removing access to free testing” at a time when Covid disruption in schools is rising again.
He said the “immediate concern is that by letting people who could still be contagious return to school too early, we could see an increase in cases and therefore more, rather than less disruption”.
“If the medical advice has changed, then government has a duty to explain that to schools.”
Javid plans ‘rapid testing response’ to potential variants
Free Covid tests for members of the public also run out this week, despite a rise in Covid cases nationwide seen since late February.
The Department of Heath and Social Care accepted that infections and hospitalisations had “risen in recent weeks”, but said over 55 per cent of those in hospital that have tested positive “are not there with Covid-19 as their primary diagnosis”.
Health secretary Sajid Javid said the UK was “leading the way in learning to live with the virus”.
“We have made enormous progress but will keep the ability to respond to future threats including potential variants.”
The government said it had plans in place to enable “rapid testing response” if a new threat such as a variant of concern emerges.
This story has been updated with the latest DfE guidance.