Schools testing strategy could ‘increase Covid in schools’

The programme of mass testing in schools has been called into question by experts.

Academics warned the testing strategy proposed could actually increase cases of Covid-19 in schools.

Plans were put in place to start mass testing in schools from January but then schools were forced to shut their doors to most pupils due to the latest national lockdown.

The testing strategy will see staff at secondary schools and colleges in England offered weekly tests.

And a “serial testing” scheme will mean pupils and staff will be tested if they come into contact with a positive case.

This approach, also known as “daily contact testing”, will allow those who are in close contact with someone who has tested positive to return to school or college if they agree to be tested for seven days following last contact with a positive case and that test is negative.

Writing in The BMJ, experts said using testing to manage classroom outbreaks, without isolating close contacts, risks increasing disease spread.

The article, written by a number of experts including Jon Deeks, professor of biostatistics at the University of Birmingham and research lead for the Cochrane Covid-19 test evaluation review, states: “Scientists have particular concerns that negative Innova (lateral flow tests) results are too inaccurate to rule out Covid.”

They said the serial testing of close contacts “may increase rather than decrease Covid cases in schools”.

This is because “the possibility that some close contacts who are infected will test negative and will spread the virus is not negligible”.

They said this strategy is “contrary” to scientific guidance.

This type of mass testing could detect some pre-symptomatic cases but will “miss many” and “falsely reassure those testing negative, if they are not properly informed of the test’s limitations,” the authors said.

“Home isolation impacts hard on children, families, and teachers,” the article concludes.

“But if Innova testing in schools risks spreading the disease more widely, it may lead to even more disruption to education and putting many more people at risk.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Around one in three people with coronavirus have no symptoms meaning they can pass on the disease without knowing it.

“To protect the health of the teaching workforce and students we are making rapid-result coronavirus tests available to schools and colleges to allow them to test staff and students regularly.

“We are examining how daily contact testing arrangements and repeat testing can help find people without symptoms of coronavirus and break the chains of transmission.”