'Scary stuff': School rapid Covid test fears explained

Academic warns that the government is basing Covid strategy for schools next year on 'unreliable' lateral flow tests
22nd December 2020, 6:36pm
John Roberts


'Scary stuff': School rapid Covid test fears explained

Coronavirus: Fears Have Been Raised Over The Reliability Of Lateral Flow Covid Tests, Which Will Be Rolled Out In Schools Next Term

A university academic has told Tes exactly why he thinks the government's plan to regularly test teachers and students for Covid next term is flawed and unreliable. 

The idea underpinning the return of secondary schools in the new year is to give staff or students who are close contacts of a confirmed Covid case a daily lateral flow test for seven days rather sending them home to self-isolate.

But Jon Deeks, a professor of biostatistics at the University of Birmingham, says this plan will simply result in teachers and students with Covid staying in school and infecting others because they will have inaccurate negative test results.

Lateral flow tests: Secondary schools asked to test students twice at the start of term 

Covid: Contacts will be tested for seven days rather than being sent home to self-isolate

Warning: New mass testing plan is 'recipe for disaster'

Speaking to Tes, he said: "This is really scary stuff. I have three children in school and I am pretty anxious that this is what is going to be what happens next term.

"The question is not whether schools should have mass testing but why is the government using these tests when they are known not to be reliable.

Coronavirus: Doubts over the reliability of lateral flow tests

"The government has taken a decision to use these tests but the question is, 'Why?'

"They will detect cases when a person has a high viral load but by this time they will have been infectious and in school for some time and may be displaying symptoms anyway."

Prof Deeks has spoken out about his concerns after testing at his own university failed to identify Covid cases - with academics estimating that as little as 3 per cent of the people with the coronavirus were identified.

The university tested 7,189 students with the lateral flow test and only two tested positive. 

It they tested 710 of the swabs that had been negative with a PCR test and found six more positives. On that basis, Prof Deeks said the lateral flow test probably missed around 60 positives.

He added: "It took the university six days and 20 people working 12-hour days to set up our testing and at the end of it we found two cases and probably missed 60. How are schools going to be able to do this and what use will it be?"

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, has warned that relying on these lateral flow tests in schools as a new variant of Covid, which is understood to transmit more easily among school-age children, has been found is a "recipe for disaster".

This afternoon The Guardian reported that plans to open rapid-turnaround coronavirus test centres across England over Christmas have been shelved amid concerns from public health experts about the accuracy of lateral flow test results.

Prof Deeks said: "It looks like the government is starting to listen to the concerns but there will be big questions if they persist with this plan for lateral flow tests in schools. And there is also a question about whether schools will comply."

Regular Covid testing in schools has been a government ambition for some time.

Earlier this year leaked government documents on a "£100 billion plan", dubbed "Operation Moonshot", said that teachers would be prioritised for regular Covid testing and schools would be testing sites.

In the last week of term, the Department for Education made two announcements about mass Covid testing in schools to start in the new year.

Teachers and staff in secondary schools will be tested once every seven days and any staff or students who are identified as a close contact of a confirmed case will be tested daily for seven days.

On top of this, the Department for Education announced, on the penultimate day of term, that it wants secondary schools and colleges to deliver 11 million lateral flow tests from the start of the new term.  

However, schools are not being given extra direct funding to run these tests and have been told they can claim back "reasonable costs".

Education unions and other organisations have already joined forces to warn the DfE that its plan is "inoperable" in its current form and have said that any school that refuses to take part will be supported by their union.

When the first announcement was made on testing teachers once every seven days and carrying out daily tests on Covid contacts, schools were sent a handbook explaining what was expected of them.

Prof Deeks has questioned information provided to schools in this document, which says that the lateral flow tests being sent out were as reliable as PCR Covid tests.

Testing in Schools - text below is from Government Handbook. This statement is WRONG.

Tests missed over 50% of Covid cases in Liverpool. They are not nearly as good at identifying a case as PCR.

This is misleading and dangerous. Our kids and teachers need to be kept safe. pic.twitter.com/p4rZh1t4or

- Jon Deeks (@deeksj) December 17, 2020


In a post on Twitter, Prof Deeks responded: "The text below is from government handbook. This statement is wrong. Tests missed over 50 per cent of Covid cases in Liverpool.

"They are not nearly as good at identifying a case as PCR. This is misleading and dangerous. Our kids and teachers need to be kept safe."

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: "The country's leading scientists rigorously evaluated the lateral flow test and confirmed the accuracy of the tests using a sample of over 8,500.

"Latest figures for similar settings showing sensitivity of 57.5 per cent generally and 84.3 per cent in people with high viral loads.

"This means they are accurate, reliable and successfully identify those with Covid-19 who don't show symptoms and could pass on the virus without realising.

"With up to a third of individuals with Covid-19 not displaying symptoms, broadening testing to identify those showing no symptoms will mean finding positive cases more quickly and break chains of transmission.

"Anyone who tested positive with a lateral flow test during the university testing earlier this month would have been asked to get a confirmatory PCR test."


You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Register for free to read more

You can read two more articles on Tes for free this month if you register using the button below.

Alternatively, you can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters

Already registered? Log in

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Subscribe to read more

You can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters