Exclusive: Heads want 'confusing' Covid tests paused

DfE plans would result in 'different safety systems in secondaries and primaries' warns ASCL general secretary
18th January 2021, 6:56pm
John Roberts


Exclusive: Heads want 'confusing' Covid tests paused

Geoff Barton, The General Secretary Of Ascl, Has Called For The Serial Testing Of Close Contacts Of Covid Cases To Be Halted.

A headteachers' leader has warned that the government's Covid testing plan for schools is creating "a two tier safety system" in which secondary pupils and staff exposed to the virus stay on-site if they test negative, whereas those in primaries self isolate.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, has now called on the Department for Education to "pause" the daily testing of Covid contacts in secondary schools after it emerged these tests would not be happening in primary schools.

The Department for Education has told secondary schools to use rapid lateral flow Covid tests to carry out daily serial testing of close contacts of any confirmed Covid case and to keep people in school if they test negative. 

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This has prompted fears that people who falsely test negative for Covid will remain at school, risking further spread of the virus.

However, the DfE has confirmed to Tes  that there will be no daily testing of close contacts at primary schools, where staff and pupils will be tested from home and self-isolate even if they test negative.

The Medicine Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has not approved the use of these rapid lateral flow Covid tests as a "self-test device for 'serial testing' for school pupils who have been exposed to a confirmed positive COVID case that would enable them to attend school as normal".

However, Tes understands that this statement applies to people using the kits to self-test, rather than under supervision.

The DfE therefore says MHRA approval is not needed for its plan to use the daily tests in secondary schools and colleges, as it is only happening in these settings under supervision.

But, as primary school pupils and staff are only using the tests at home, they cannot be used for "serial testing" as the MHRA has not authorised the tests to be used in this way.

Mr Barton said: "We don't expect that serial testing as an alternative to self-isolation will take place with primary school children in light of the MHRA ruling. 

"So, this will mean having different safety systems in secondaries and primaries, with serial testing of close contacts taking place in secondaries, and self-isolation in primaries. 

'It will send a mixed message about what is safe'

He added: "It is very confusing and will send out a mixed message to pupils, parents, and staff about what is safe."

Mr Barton said that ASCL has already called on the government to clarify why it considers that serial testing is a "safe and effective alternative to self isolation" given the concerns that  the lateral flow tests "appear to produce a proportion of false negative results".

The union wrote to education secretary Gavin Williamson at the start of term to ask this question and has yet to receive a reply.

Mr Barton added: "This clarification is now more pressing than ever because of the fact that we look set to end up with a two-tier safety system.

 "We would suggest that the government at least pauses the serial testing part of this programme until this matter is settled."

Children's Minister Vicky Ford today told MPs today that the DfE has asked for "rapid" new public health advice about Covid testing of close contacts in schools from both NHS Test and Trace and Public Health England.

There are mounting concerns about the use of lateral flow tests on people who have come into contact with a confirmed case of the coronavirus in schools.

Tes revealed on Friday that local public health directors in some parts of the country advising schools not to follow the government's plan to use rapid Covid tests to keep close contacts of coronavirus cases in the classroom

And a leading headteacher has warned that the Department for Education's plan to use rapid Covid tests in this way goes against the manufacturer's own instructions.

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