Due to changing public health advice we are pausing the daily testing of pupils and school staff who have come into contact with positive cases in order to give time to evaluate whether this is an effective strategy in light of the newer, more transmissible strain of the virus. But what does this mean in practice?
Didn’t Public Health England and SAGE say that daily testing on contacts a viable alternative to isolation in schools?
Yes they did. Last year we announced a widespread programme of testing in schools and as part of that we said anyone who had come into contact with a confirmed case of Covid-19 would be tested for the virus daily rather than having to self-isolate in order to make sure as many people – staff and pupils – could carry on attending schools.
A Public Health England spokesperson said:
At the end of last year the Government announced a widespread testing programme in schools to detect additional asymptomatic cases and reduce transmission. This included regular testing of staff and the introduction of daily contact testing for close contacts in secondary schools. This remains an extremely important part of our overarching testing programme.
Initial pilots of testing in schools (led by Public Health England and NHS Test and Trace), including contact testing, started in October. These pilots illustrated the potential benefit of Daily Contact Testing in schools in detecting more positive cases and ensuring continued face to face education…The SAGE 68 meeting concluded that ‘overall SAGE is supportive of piloting regular testing to avoid quarantine and assesses that this could provide a similar effect to the current 14-day isolation system.’
So what’s changed?
This was before the newer, more transmissible strain of the virus became dominant. In light of this, Public Health England has reviewed its advice and now recommends that daily contact testing in schools is paused and that we revert to contacts self-isolating while experts look at whether daily testing is effective in the context of the new strain of the virus.
We are also increasing testing of staff to twice weekly as further reassurance and to break chains of transmission.
I read in the Guardian that you are pausing all mass testing of pupils?
This is not true. Mass testing of pupils and weekly testing of staff will continue in schools, as planned and previously set out. The only change is that we are pausing daily contact testing and reverting to contacts isolating at home.
Is it still your priority to open schools as soon as possible and keep them open to as many pupils and students as possible?
Absolutely. As we have said consistently, education is a national priority – because schools and colleges are the best place for young people’s education, development and wellbeing. We are now focused on making sure all children have access to the best possible standard of remote education, while we are working towards reopening schools as soon as possible.
So when will you be bringing back daily contact testing in place of isolation?
Well it depends on Public Health England’s advice. A small number of schools are continuing to do daily testing to help them understand the benefits in light of the new strain.