Plans for daily testing in secondary schools hailed as a “milestone moment” by the Education Secretary have been put on ice.
The Department for Education (DfE) confirmed on Wednesday that the £78million testing programme for English schools had been paused – only weeks after Gavin Williamson hailed it as a gamechanger.
The plan was plunged into uncertainty after it emerged that Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency raised concerns about a key plank of the strategy.
The watchdog said it had not given approval for using daily tests to allow pupils to avoid isolation if they have come into close contact with an infected person.
On Wednesday, Public Health England (PHE) and NHS Test and Trace said the balance between the risks and benefits were “unclear” in light of the new variant.
The Government accepted the recommendation to suspend the scheme in “all but a small number of secondary schools and colleges” where it will continue alongside “detailed evaluation”.
Schools will continue to test their staff twice a week and test students twice upon their return to school to catch asymptomatic cases.
The latest row comes after a string of u-turns over schools, which have been closed again for the latest lockdown.
Mr Williamson ordered primary pupils to go back into the classroom for one day on January 4 – before Boris Johnson announced closures as part of the national restrictions.
On Wednesday, PHE and NHS Test and Trace said: “The balance between the risks (transmission of virus in schools and onward to households and the wider community) and benefits (education in a face-to-face and safe setting) for daily contact testing is unclear.
“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.”
The u-turn comes after Dougal Hargreaves, the DfE’s deputy chief scientific advisor, warned that use of rapid lateral flow devices daily in schools carried a “hypothetical risk of increasing transmission”.
He said: “If you are in a very high prevalence area, people are very nervous about the idea that people who have been in contact with an infected case are still attending school whether that is staff or pupils.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “We are relieved that lateral flow tests have now been paused as an alternative to self-isolation for individuals who have been in close contact with someone who has coronavirus.
“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.”
He backed the broader use of mass testing in schools but said staff were worried about the idea of using tests to avoid the need for self isolation.
Mr Barton added: “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.”
A Government spokesman said: “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 still has “potential”, he said, adding that pilots would continue to build evidence for its use.