The government must answer serious questions over Covid testing in schools after reports that a medical regulator has not approved its plan, a school leaders' union has said.
The Department for Education is expecting schools to use rapid lateral flow devices to test staff once a week and to carry out daily tests for seven days on any close contact of confirmed Covid cases rather than sending them home to self-isolate.
It was reported last night that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has told the government it had not authorised the daily use of the 30-minute tests in schools because of concerns that they give people false reassurance if they test negative.
And Tes revealed this morning that some local public health directors are advising schools against using the lateral flow tests to keep Covid contacts in school because of concerns about the tests missing cases.
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Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union the NAHT, said: “The government now has serious questions to answer about the use of lateral flow tests in schools.
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"The suggestion that the MHRA have not approved these tests to be used as an alternative to self-isolation is alarming, as that is precisely what the government are suggesting schools should do as part of their testing strategy.
"The government also needs to urgently explain why it took such an approach if the MHRA approval was not in place.
“Once again, the government’s confused approach has made it impossible to have confidence in their plans, and is putting school leaders and their communities in a difficult situation.”
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, said: "The regulator’s decision has hopefully ruled out the Department for Education’s reckless wish to keep close contacts of positive cases in the classroom instead of ensuring they self-isolate, as they should do.
"We would now welcome discussions with DfE on a programme which is aimed at mass testing solely for identification of asymptomatic cases which would otherwise be missed, rather than at circumventing the self-isolation rules.
"We have always supported the idea of mass testing in schools as a means to facilitate safe on-site learning, but this has to be consistent with scientific understanding. The DfE used a study into daily lateral flow testing arrangements that were not the same as those proposed for schools. It was obvious from the start that the department was twisting the science to justify its preferred policy of avoiding necessary self-isolation, risking an increase in the number of cases, not a reduction."
The comments come just before the DfE is set to roll-out its Covid testing to primary school staff.
At a Commons Education Select Committee hearing this week, education secretary Gavin Williamson said the tests would be sent out to primary schools from next week.
And the DfE's permanent secretary, Susan Acland-Hood, said that the department was working on plans for primary school pupils to be tested at home – which would be piloted before being rolled out.
The government announced a major Covid testing plan for schools at the end of last term.
Secondary schools were told to prepare to test all their students before a staggered start to the new term and to use the tests for both weekly testing of staff and daily serial testing of Covid contacts.
However, schools have since been closed to most pupils with learning moving online in the new national lockdown.
The DfE is still expecting schools to carry on with its testing plans.
In a daily bulletin sent to secondary schools on Wednesday the department said schools should now use the lateral flow test to offer:
- Initial testing of vulnerable pupils and children of critical workers who are on school and college sites (two tests, three to five days apart).
- Weekly testing of staff who are on school and college sites.
- Daily testing of close contacts of positive cases in school and college as an alternative to self-isolation.
The DfE and MHRA have been approached for comment.