Coronavirus testing in schools should be scrapped, experts say

·4-min read
Prime Minister Boris Johnson talks with primary school children in Cornwall (Jack Hill/The Times/PA) (PA Wire)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson talks with primary school children in Cornwall (Jack Hill/The Times/PA) (PA Wire)

Covid-19 testing trials in schools should be suspended due to a range of concerns including their effectiveness in picking up the virus, experts have said.

In an open letter to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson they criticised the approach, branding it “deeply concerning” that daily testing trials are “being presented as a solution for educational disruption”.

Currently around 200 schools and colleges across England are participating in a trial, with one group following the national guidance of quarantining contacts of positive cases, and the other allowing daily testing of contacts for a week instead of isolation.

As part of the trial rapid lateral flow tests are to be used each day, with participants also offered a PCR test - which involves sending results to a lab - on day two and seven. But the letter, backed by 14 experts, lists ethical and scientific concerns, worries about the risks due to missed infections, and what they describe as a lack of robust mitigations in schools.

They voiced their concern that results from the trial in schools would be used as a basis for public health policy “given the assessment of risk of increased transmission arising from these trials is inadequate”.

Those putting their name to the letter include Professor Stephen Reicher and Professor Susan Michie, who are members of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) as well as the Independent Sage group.

The letter, published in the BMJ, states: “We ask the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to suspend these trials immediately, pending adoption of comprehensive mitigations and to allow time to prepare and provide vital clarity to students, families, teachers, the wider public and the scientific community about the scientific justification and ethical considerations for these trials.

“We would be very concerned about results from these trials being used as the basis for any public health policy, given the assessment of risk of increased transmission arising from these trials is inadequate.”

It asks that results from trials are made public to allow them to be subject to expert peer review.

The letter adds: “It is deeply concerning that the daily contact testing trials are being presented as a solution for educational disruption when so little has been done in the way of basic and highly effective mitigations that would help reduce educational disruption, and investment in catch-up learning to address inequities created by this.

“Keeping potentially infected and infectious children and staff in school may make attendance numbers look better for the short-term, but the risks and potential consequences are very serious.”

A Government spokesperson said: “A small percentage of secondary schools and colleges are participating in an independently-monitored, voluntary trial of Daily Contact Testing as a replacement for self-isolation, which has been given approval by Public Health England’s Research and Ethics Governance Group.

“The trial concludes at the end of June, at which point the findings will be considered to inform any future use of Daily Contact Testing in schools.”

The trial is voluntary, with only staff and students who have given their consent taking part, the Government said.

Meanwhile, Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, appeared to indicate that the impact on education could be a reason to vaccinate younger people.

He told the Telegraph: “If children are not severely affected, if they’re not major drivers of transmission, the testing itself is picking up lots of cases - causing classes to be sent home and so on - we’ve got to get to a point where we’re not impacting on education.

“And I think that impact on education could be a reason for vaccination.

“If children aren’t very much affected, then the testing is obviously not protecting them as they’re not very affected. So is the testing being done to protect other people?”

Sir Andrew has previously spoken of the “moral objection to vaccinating a population that is extremely low risk of disease”.

He told the Science and Technology Committee earlier this week: “(There is) a moral objection to vaccinating a population that is extremely low risk of disease. Whilst we know in many parts of the world, there are people who will die over the next three months because they have no access to the vaccine.

“The priority if we take a global perspective has to be, to save lives around the world, and to have had doses made available as early as possible to those at greater risk.”

On Wednesday, International Trade Secretary Liz Truss suggested the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) will not advise the Government to press ahead with a coronavirus vaccination campaign for under-18s.

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