‘The benefit-risk balance is unclear’: Government pauses daily Covid contact testing in colleges

The rollout of daily Covid contact testing in schools and colleges has been paused amid fears over higher rates of transmission from the new variant of the disease and following widespread concern over the accuracy of tests.

Public Health England announced today that “in light of this changing situation, we now recommend that the rollout of daily contact testing within schools is paused, other than for schools involved in further evaluation”.

The Department for Education then confirmed that it has accepted PHE’s recommendation to pause this programme in both schools and colleges, but made clear there is no change to their “main rollout of regular testing”.

Schools and colleges have been told to continue to test their staff twice-weekly where possible and test pupils twice upon their return to in-person teaching – as has been the case since January.

The key part of the mass testing scheme was daily lateral flow tests for students and staff who had been in close contact with a positive Covid case. Those who tested negative could stay in the classroom rather than have to isolate.

However new guidance from PHE explains that as the new variant of Covid has “higher rates of transmission and hence generates a higher secondary attack rate … the balance between the risks (transmission of virus in schools and onward to households and the wider community) and benefits (education in a face-to-face and safe setting) for daily contact testing is unclear”.

PHE said: “Since the announcement of the schools testing programme in December, we have seen the emergence of a new variant of the virus which has become dominant in the UK. The variant has been shown to have increased transmissibility and causes higher secondary attack rates. This increases the risk of transmission everywhere, including in school settings.”

NHS Test and Trace and PHE will now conduct “structured evaluation of daily contact testing as part of a wider evaluation of daily contact testing in a range of private and public settings”.

The Department for Education will support the evaluation so that the findings can “contribute to further public health advice on daily contact testing in educational settings”.

PHE has asked for schools or colleges who have found daily contact testing helpful and would like to take part in the evaluation to contact the NHS Test and Trace evaluation team at dct-pilotpmo@dhsc.gov.uk

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