College leaders called on to help prevent unnecessary surge in coronavirus testing

Principals have been urged to stop students and staff with a sore throat or headache from getting unnecessary coronavirus tests to prevent a surge in demand that could threaten the government’s testing capacity, health officials have warned.

Demand for testing in Scotland saw a “huge increase” from people without coronavirus symptoms as schools went back last month.

Schools and colleges in England, which mostly start to reopen this week, have now been told that a similar rise must be avoided to ensure testing capacity is prioritised for those with symptoms, and to avoid children and their families “self-isolating unnecessarily”.

A letter to schools and colleges from Public Health England and the NHS Test and Trace states: “Crucial to our overall support for schools and colleges is ensuring that everyone with coronavirus symptoms has access to a test as soon as they develop those symptoms.

“It is vital that we learn from the recent Scottish experience, where the return of schools saw a huge increase in demand for tests from people without coronavirus symptoms.

“We want to avoid a similar surge in test demand as England’s schools and colleges return to ensure that we continue to prioritise our testing capacity for those with symptoms and to avoid children, students and their families self-isolating unnecessarily.”

The letter states students and staff should only be tested if they develop one or more of the main coronavirus symptoms, or if instructed to by a healthcare provider. The three main symptoms are a high temperature, a new, continuous cough, or a loss of taste or smell.

There is also “no need” for full households to also have a test, unless they are also symptomatic, the guidance states.

The letter adds: “As schools and colleges across England return, pupils and students may feel unwell for example with a sore throat, stomach upset or a headache.

“These pupils and students don’t need to book a test but may need to stay off school or college and seek medical advice through their GP or pharmacist as usual. Please do communicate this to the parents of the children at your school and the students at your college; we know that they listen to you and trust your advice.”

It adds that directors of Public Health and local PHE Health Protection teams are “on hand to support you on this most vital mission to get our children and students back to school and college, learning happily and safely”.

The letters also clarifies that students and staff who were on the shielding list can now be welcomed back, unless they are in a lockdown area with specific shielding requirements, have been advised to self-isolate or have recently been advised to remain off school or college – for instance with a new serious diagnosis such as active cancer.

The letter is signed by Yvonne Doyle, director of health protection at PHE and Susan Hopkins, interim chief medical adviser of NHS Test and Trace.