Once-a-day Covid tests for school pupils to avoid self-isolation set to be dropped

The programme had been announced just weeks ago (file photo) (Image: Rob Browne/Media Wales)

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Ministers are expected to drop plans for daily Covid tests in England's secondary schools after regulators failed to approve the flagship policy.

Hapless Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced just weeks ago that the £78m lateral flow test scheme would be a "milestone moment" in the fight against the virus.

But the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency raised concerns about allowing pupils who test negative to avoid isolation if they've in close contact with an infected person.

When the policy was announced last month, the Department for Education claimed pupils and staff would be able to do "serial testing" instead of 10 days' self-isolation if a contact of theirs in school tested positive.

The students would have been tested each day for seven days, and would have remained in school unless one of the tests came back positive.

The students would have been tested each day for seven days (file photo)
(Image: Rob Browne/Media Wales)

At the time, it was expected that the vast majority of children would swab themselves – despite concerns about the number of cases missed by rapid 'lateral flow' tests.

The testing of secondary school staff and students is now expected to take place twice a week with pupils requiring two tests before they return to classrooms.

It's understood the Department for Education has asked for a rapid update to public health advice from Test and Trace and Public Health England.

Officials insisted the underlying principle of testing people daily to avoid self-isolation "remains sound".

But a senior advisor to the department admitted the daily testing policy carries a "hypothetical risk of increasing transmission".

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Dougal Hargreaves, the Department for Education's (DfE) deputy chief scientific advisor, said there should be a more "detailed evaluation" process on the use of rapid lateral flow tests for daily checks in schools.

Addressing MPs on the education select committee, Dr Hargreaves said the aim of the scheme – of daily contact testing for pupils and staff who have been in contact with a case – was to "improve attendance".

He said: "The concern, which is worth mentioning here, is around the separate programme, which is around daily contact testing for those who've been in contact with a proven case.

"Now there the aim is different [to two tests a week]. The aim is to improve attendance. And there is at least a hypothetical risk of increasing transmission."

Dr Hargreaves added: "So where we are now is that I think we need to be looking at a more detailed evaluation process and we've got the time until half-time to do that."

On speaking to experts about the programme, Dr Hargraves told MPs: "I think we are all broadly agreed that we think there are potential benefits. We are all agreed that there are potential risks in doing this.

"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.

"Against that we have to get the balance right because there was evidence from the Children's Commissioner's office before Christmas sometimes just one case in schools that could mean up to 100 children and young people are losing 10 days of schooling and there was a strong feeling that the balance wasn't right. That was a little bit disproportionate."

When questioned on what evidence the scientists have which can give confidence to school staff, children and parents about the safety of the tests, England's deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries said two lateral flow tests a week is "equivalent effectiveness and accuracy" as one PCR test.

She said: "So I think for picking up infectious cases, particularly if they're asymptomatic on a routine basis, they're highly effective in removing people who are infectious out of that environment and stopping chains of transmission."