The government has told schools to pause the daily coronavirus testing of students and staff in England, five weeks after it was announced as a “milestone moment” by the education secretary, Gavin Williamson.
Public Health England (PHE) said the balance of the risks and potential benefits of daily testing were now “unclear” after the emergence of the more transmissible variant of Covid-19.
Confirming the Guardian’s story from Tuesday that the rollout would be halted, PHE said: “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.”
PHE said schools should continue to test staff twice weekly where possible, and test pupils twice upon return to school, as has been the case since the start of January.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said headteachers were “relieved” at the decision.
He added: “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.”
Barton said mass testing was an important way of keeping schools open but that it was important for the government to provide clarity about the limitations of lateral flow tests, which provide results in 30 minutes but have failed to detect a significant proportion of infections in some trials.
He added: “They are useful in detecting asymptomatic cases but they are not definitive and it is vital that individuals continue to follow the normal safety procedures even if they have a negative result.”