The Department for Education's controversial plan to use daily rapid Covid testing to keep close contacts of confirmed cases of the virus in school is being "paused".
Public Health England has recommended putting this part of the government's Covid school testing plan on hold because of the higher rates of transmission of the virus caused by a new variant.
And the DfE has confirmed this morning that the recommendation has been accepted.
PHE said the pandemic was in a new phase and the balance of risks of carrying on using tests in this way in schools is now unclear.
Until now the DfE has been telling schools and colleges to use lateral flow tests on pupils, teachers and other school staff who have had close contact with the virus by testing them daily for seven days and keeping them in school if they test negative rather than asking them to self-isolate.
But this raised widespread concerns that the programme would result in people who had the virus being kept in school because of false-negative test results.
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Public Health England said today that schools should still continue to test their staff regularly – twice weekly where possible, in line with recommendations for other workforces that need to leave home to work – and test pupils twice when they return to school.
It also said that an evaluation of the use of the tests on Covid contacts in schools would now be carried out while they are paused.
The Association of School and College Leaders has welcomed the announcement to pause the use of tests in this way.
Coronavirus: Rapid tests 'a worse alternative to self-isolation'
ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton said: “We are relieved that lateral flow tests have now been paused as an alternative to self-isolation for individuals who have been in close contact with someone who has coronavirus.
“This use of these tests never really made sense because they don’t detect all those with the infection, so we could potentially have ended up with more infectious people in school than under the self-isolation system where close contacts are sent home.
"We have been making this point to the government repeatedly over the past few weeks.
“It is important to understand that this issue is about one specific use of these tests. We support the principle of using them for general mass testing of students and staff because this process should pick up at least a proportion of asymptomatic cases and improve safety. Our concern was purely over the idea of using them as a worse alternative to the existing self-isolation system for close contacts.
“Unfortunately, the government’s insistence on first trying to use them in this way and then having to do yet another policy reversal will have thoroughly confused parents, pupils and the wider public. Schools will once again be left having to unpick the confusion caused by the government."
In a statement published today, Public Health England 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."
PHE said this has moved the pandemic into a new phase, adding that the "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."
The statement added: "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.
"This will enable the further detailed evaluation of changing circumstances including, potentially, lower infection rates and modelling work required to understand the benefits of daily contact testing in this new phase of the pandemic."
A government spokesperson said: “There is no change to the main rollout of regular testing using rapid lateral flow tests in schools and colleges, which is already proving beneficial in finding teachers and students with coronavirus who do not have symptoms.
“Testing is a vital part of our plan to supress this virus, and we are consistently guided by expert advice on the best way to structure the programme. Following pilots and on the advice of NHS Test and Trace, daily contact testing as a replacement to self-isolation was rolled out to keep children in school as much as possible.
“NHS Test and Trace and Public Health England have reviewed their advice, and concluded that, in light of the higher prevalence and rates of transmission of the new variant, further evaluation work is required to make sure it is achieving its aim of breaking chains of transmission and reducing cases of the virus in the community.
“We are, therefore, pausing daily contact testing in all but a small number of secondary schools and colleges, where it will continue alongside detailed evaluation.
“Daily contact testing, used as an alternative to up to a whole class having to isolate if a positive case is detected, continues to have the potential to be a valuable tool to keep more young people and staff at school, the best place for students’ development and wellbeing.
"We will continue pilots to gather further data and to build the evidence base for the programme.
“Regular testing of staff will increase to twice weekly as further reassurance and to help break chains of transmission during this period.”