Ministers are set to halt plans for daily coronavirus tests in England’s secondary schools after teachers expressed alarm that the flagship policy had not been approved by regulators.
The Department for Education will announce it is pausing the daily testing of pupils and teachers after receiving new health advice, only five weeks after the £78m programme was unveiled as a “milestone moment” in the fight against Covid-19.
The about-turn came after the Guardian revealed last week that the UK’s medicines regulator had not authorised the daily use of rapid-turnaround tests as an alternative to self-isolation.
The programme, which got under way in secondary schools a fortnight ago, was at the centre of the government’s £100m Operation Moonshot mass-testing plans and its strategy for fully reopening schools after the February half-term.
It is understood that the DfE will say it has received updated advice from Public Health England on daily contact testing and that it will be “paused” across England, except for a handful of trials.
The government is expected to say that the new advice is related to the high transmissibility of the new Covid strain which was discovered in south-east England last month. The DfE has been contacted for comment.
The testing of secondary school and college staff and students is expected to revert to twice a week, and pupils will still have two tests, three to five days apart, before they return to classrooms. Schools in England are only open for vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers.
Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, had said the testing of “literally millions of children every single week” would keep more children in schools by sending home only those who test positive with a 30-minute lateral flow test.
However, concerns have been raised by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) about using these tests to allow those who test negative to avoid isolation if they have been in close contact with an infected person.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said late on Friday that the MHRA’s approval was not required for the school tests, in which students swab themselves, because they are assisted by school staff who have been trained to oversee them.
However, that failed to allay the concerns of school leaders. Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, urged ministers to halt the programme, which he said was “very confusing and will send out a mixed message to pupils, parents, and staff about what is safe”.
The DfE said on Friday that the daily testing of pupils would not be expanded to primary schools this week. Dougal Hargreaves, the DfE’s deputy chief scientific adviser, told MPs on Tuesday that the programme of keeping children in schools if they test negative carried a potential risk of increasing transmission of the virus.
But he said there was a “strong feeling” that Covid cases were resulting in too many children being off school.
Education minister Vicky Ford said on Monday that NHS test and trace and Public Health England had been asked to provide “rapid updated public health advice” on daily contact Covid testing in schools.
She added: “This is in the context of the current prevalence of the virus and the high transmission rates. The department, NHS test and trace and Public Health England encourage the weekly testing of all staff, although this remains a voluntary matter for individual staff members, and, as I said earlier, early-years staff will be prioritised through the community testing.”
The use of 30-minute lateral flow tests has divided experts. Some say they should be welcomed because they can quickly and cheaply identify infected people that would otherwise be missed. But others point to their low accuracy and say they risk doing more harm than good.
Labour’s Clive Lewis said schools were being turned into “experimentation labs for big pharma” and asked the government to confirm that no tests were being carried out on children that have not met regulatory approval.