School leaders say the Department for Education has serious questions to answer about why it pursued a "risky" testing policy of keeping Covid contacts in schools before they made "a U-turn" on this today.
The NAHT school leaders' union has welcomed the announcement that daily Covid contact testing has been paused in schools but said school staff are “deeply frustrated” at the regular chaotic announcements from government.
The government has paused a key part of its testing plan in schools today.
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Until now, secondary schools and colleges have been told to carry out rapid Covid tests on people who have come into contact with the virus and keep them in school if they test negative rather than asking them to self isolate.
However, this has now been paused on the recommendation of Public Health England and NHS Test and Trace who said the balance of risks of this approach is now unclear in a new phase of the pandemic caused by the new variant.
Paul Whiteman, NAHT general secretary said: “School leaders have previously expressed considerable concern regarding government’s plans to use negative lateral flow test results as an alternative to isolation.
"It was clear to all but government that the reliability of these tests is simply not good enough to warrant such action.
“It is good news that the government has finally recognised the advice of health experts and come to the correct conclusion on this matter.
"But once again, it is professionals on the front-line who are left unsure which way to face following another government U-turn, and who are deeply frustrated at the regularity of chaotic announcements emanating from the centre.”
James Bowen, the union’s director of policy added: “I think while we welcome the decision to pause the use of tests in this way it still leaves the government with some serious questions to answer about why they pursued this policy in the first place.
“I know they have said that this is based on new advice but this testing programme has been in place since 4 January.
"They certainly knew by then about the new variant of Covid and I think they need to answer questions about why they have pursued something which has now obviously proven to be risky.”
A government spokesperson has confirmed that daily contact testing has been paused.
They 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 suppress 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.”