Members of the RSS Covid-19 Task Force and Working Group on Diagnostic Tests have called for the government to urgently re-evaluate current plans to introduce mass testing in schools when they re-open again to all pupils, warning that they could risk spreading the virus more widely.
The call was made in a BMJ opinion piece authored by senior RSS fellows Jon Deeks, Sheila Bird, current RSS President Sylvia Richardson and former RSS President Deborah Ashby. Mike Gill, a former regional director of Public Health, also contributed to the piece.
The government plans to use INNOVA rapid lateral flow tests in schools to mass screen staff and pupils. Rather than being sent home to self isolate (as was the case last term), close contacts of confirmed Covid cases who are not showing symptoms will instead be tested daily for seven days, and only sent home if they test positive.
In the BMJ piece, the authors collectively express concern that negative INNOVA results are too inaccurate to rule out Covid entirely. If used to manage classroom outbreaks instead of isolating close contacts, there is a risk that the strategy may increase rather than decrease Covid cases in schools. ‘Cases are infectious before they are symptomatic,’ they explain. ‘Thus, there is a real risk […] that infected people transmit the virus before becoming symptomatic. But while mass testing with INNOVA will detect some of these cases, it will miss many, and falsely reassure those testing negative, if they are not properly informed of the test’s limitations.’
The piece ends with a call for ‘rigorous evaluation’ of the new strategy compared with other testing options, such as the use of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests (as required for travellers), to check whether each strategy’s benefits outweigh its harm.
In a separate piece for the BMJ, Jon Deeks, along with Mike Gill and Angela Raffle of the University of Bristol Population Health Sciences, urged the government to rethink the lateral flow test roll out. Jon also appeared on Radio 4’s Today programme on 13 January to discuss the implications of using the tests in schools.
The RSS has been expressing concerns about the government’s plans for mass testing in schools since they were first announced. In December, the RSS Working Group on Diagnostic Tests released a statement outlining major concerns and on 6 January, RSS Chief Executive Stian Westlake wrote a letter to The Times saying the tests were ‘far from fit for the job’.