The UK government is “pausing” plans to roll out rapid daily Covid-19 testing on close contacts of positive cases for students and staff in English secondary schools and colleges, it announced on Wednesday.
A government spokesperson said that the change of plans was the result of updated advice from UK scientific advisers. “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,” the spokesperson said.
“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.”
In a statement, Public Health England (PHE) and NHS Test and Trace cited concerns over the more transmissible variant of Covid-19 discovered in the UK as the reason for the change, commenting that the “pandemic has entered a new phase” and that the balance of risk and benefits for daily Covid-19 tests is now “unclear” and recommended to the government that the rollout of the daily contact testing be paused.
Covid strain VOC202012/01 was discovered in the UK and has been prevalent in the south east of England since November 2020.
The mass testing programme in secondary schools and colleges was due to start in January to help identify asymptomatic cases amongst students and staff and reduce the need for self-isolation by using 30 minute lateral flow tests.
It planned for daily tests for all staff and students that have been “a close contact of a confirmed case, reducing the need for self-isolation” for all secondary schools and colleges, along with weekly rapid tests for all staff in secondary schools and colleges, according to the Department for Education.
National lockdown measures across England have forced schools to remain closed since January 5, however children of key workers are still allowed to attend. PHE confirmed that schools should continue to test staff and pupils currently going in to schools.
Whilst daily Covid-19 testing in schools was hailed by UK Education Secretary Gavin Williamson as a “milestone moment in our work to keep schools and colleges open for all” in December, scientists have expressed concerns that the tests may not be accurate enough, and could falsely reassure people and increase the spread of coronavirus.