Forcing children to self-isolate was ‘needless’

Forcing hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren to self-isolate because a classmate had Covid was unnecessary as daily testing would have been as effective, an official study suggests.

The results of the study, by the University of Oxford , emerged on the last day of term, when over one million pupils are off school owing to the virus after months of disruption to education.

Since June, The Telegraph has been running a campaign calling on ministers to put children first as the country recovers from its Covid lockdowns, with action to bring an end to the chaos in schools.

The team behind the study said the results also offered reassurance for policymakers trying to end the pingdemic because they showed that the virus could be controlled in a less "destructive" way.

It came as the latest figures revealed that up to one million people a week are being asked to isolate in England and Wales, with record numbers being pinged by the NHS app.

Over half a million 'pinged' at start of July

The Oxford study found that 98.4 per cent of children who were sent home for 10 days never went on to develop Covid – a result set to anger parents and pupils forced to stay at home needlessly.

Schools which tested pupils daily instead of requiring them to self-isolate saw four per cent fewer cases, which experts said may be because infected youngsters were more open about their contacts when the consequences were not so severe, meaning cases were identified more quickly.  

Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham, said the study showed that "unnecessary disruption" could be avoided with daily tests.  

"It is always going to be tricky to define the relative effectiveness of isolation versus testing, as there are a lot of assumptions that need to be made," he said. "That aside, what this study shows is that daily testing rather than isolation of contacts is effective in preventing onward transmission.

"Crucially, it also highlights the unnecessary disruption that isolation rules have had on countless numbers of children. Isolation of contacts is an important weapon in infection control, but it is also crude. Rapid testing circumvents needless isolation, and it should be used more widely."

Since May, 6.2 million people across England and Wales have been asked to isolate, according to the Adam Smith Institute.

Tim Peto, professor of medicine at Oxford and the principal investigator in the schools trial, said the findings could help end the pingdemic.

"This will give comfort to people who want to work out a better and easier way to stop transmission than pingdemics and these rather destructive ways of controlling disease," he said. "It increases the opportunity for people to contain transmission in a much more comfortable and socially acceptable way."  

The high numbers in isolation come as Britain recorded nearly 10,000 fewer Covid cases on Thursday compared to the same day last week, new figures show, raising hopes that the epidemic may be slowing.

Although the seven-day case rate continues to rise, increasing 24 per cent overall in a week, numbers have been below 50,000 for several days.

However, Public Health England (PHE) warned that case rates were still very high among younger people, with 1,154 per 100,000 of 20 to 29-year-olds now infected – the highest infection rate for any age group since the start of the pandemic – compared to 60.6 per 100,000 for the over-80s.

The schools trial – which ran between April and June – involved more than 200 schools, around half of which continued with normal rules while the other half were allowed to test pupils instead of asking them to isolate.

Researchers found that, of the 5,763 children who would ordinarily have been asked to isolate, the trial prevented them from missing 28,000 school days.

Oxford said schools taking part in the testing arm of the study felt "bereft" when forced to revert to the old system at the end of the trial, with pupils in tears as they were handed isolation notices at the school gates.

The Government has vowed to scrap the "bubble" isolation rules in the new school year and replace them with a daily testing regime, but on Thursday it extended the funding for its virtual school until Easter in an indication that pupils may still need to learn at home.

There is growing unease about the number of people being asked to self-isolate, with shops running out of food, rubbish collections missed and businesses forced to close because of a lack of staff.

Some shops are running short of supplies as the pingdemic continues to bite

Credit: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images Europe

Statistics show that 607,486 people were asked to isolate as a result of the app in the week ending July 14 – the highest on record – while 475,465 received a call or message from NHS Test and Trace after being identified as a close contact of a positive case.

However, there has been a noticeable drop in the number of positive cases agreeing to hand over contacts or respond to messages from contact tracers.  Around one tenth of people who downloaded the NHS Covid app have now deleted it, while a fifth more are considering doing so.

Scientists have backed calls for self-isolation to end. Ravi Gupta, a Cambridge University professor and a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) advising the Government, said the measures were "creating confusion and havoc".

Asked on Sky News about people deleting the app, Prof Gupta said: "I think it is a little bit difficult to justify people doing self-isolation when in fact we have held huge sporting events with large amounts of transmission that have probably gone undetected.

"So it’s a sort of half-hearted measure that is affecting the lives of many people, many of whom will be depending on their income on a daily basis, and for whom a week of isolation is disastrous."

Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said the vast majority of cases were caught at home, so there was "little if any value" in asking casual contacts to isolate. He added: "I can see no value in waiting another four weeks to lift this requirement, and I would support this being lifted tonight."

However, Nadheem Zahawi, the vaccines minister, warned that bringing in changes too early risked causing a new spike in infection rates. "Public compliance is incredibly important," he said. "I think you run the risk of infection rates running away with us and challenging the strategy of transition."

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