The Terrible Cost of Mass Testing of Children

There follows a guest post by Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychologist Dr. Zenobia Storah, Professor of Psychology Ellen Townsend, Clinical Professor of Public Health Allyson Pollock and Psychotherapist Sarah Waters, who say children were subjected to all manner of unevidenced and harmful interventions during the pandemic, not least of which was frequent testing, and we must now prioritise their recovery and ensure it never happens again.

Twice-weekly asymptomatic testing for COVID-19 was introduced in secondary schools in the U.K. in January 2021. Although guidance was specific to secondary education, many primary schools, nurseries and pre-schools also requested routine testing of children in their care. Regular self-testing by students has also been required at colleges and universities.

In the last month, the Government removed its testing advice for staff and pupils in most schools. We welcome this change. Mass testing has been harmful for many, especially for children. Indeed, experts have cautioned against asymptomatic mass testing. The lack of evidence on impact on transmission, high costs, and likely diversion of resources from important activities such as mental health support have all been cited. Incredibly, even though mass testing is screening, the U.K. Government ignored the Wilson and Junger 1968 principles of screening and never sought the advice of the National Screening Committee. We are not aware of any evidence-base for this policy or any risk assessment regarding potential psychological or physical harms.

Swabbing for either PCR or lateral flow devices (LFDs) is an unpleasant and invasive procedure that is distressing to children. In October 2020, when testing was introduced in Italian schools, paediatricians raised concerns about the risks posed by nasopharyngeal swabs, including the breakage of the swab with subsequent inhalation and possible injury to the nasal, oral and pharyngeal mucosa. Subsequently questions were raised in the European Parliament. Disappointingly there has been little interest in such concerns from professionals and policy-makers in the U.K.

Risk of psychological trauma has also been ignored despite widespread acknowledgement amongst parents of children’s distress during testing. Conditioned distress responses have been reported in young children, with older children displaying anxiety around testing, parents restraining children when swabbing, children exhibiting fear responses to parents following testing, and teens experiencing social embarrassment due to physical responses including vomiting following self-testing in school. Staff running testing centres confirm that these stories are commonplace and professionals have expressed concerns. Given that many nursery and school leadership teams insist on testing and that those administering tests are aware of these harms, lack of evaluation of this policy is unacceptable.

Wider-reaching psychological impacts have also been ignored. Routine testing of children teaches them that they are vectors of disease and a risk to others. It places on them a moral and civic obligation to subject themselves to invasive procedure for the supposed benefit of the community. Testing also normalises behaviours which are symptomatic of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder or health anxiety.  We have observed parents who, encouraged by Government messaging, behave as if they have a version of factitious disorder in relation to Covid testing. Psychologically problematic practices have been promoted and become normalised. We have similar concerns with relation to other interventions imposed on children, including face masks, social distancing and over-rigorous hand hygiene regimes.

There is no precedent for a generation of children being routinely subjected to such practices. We can only hypothesise as to immediate and long-term consequences. However, we can extrapolate from existing knowledge of the sensitivity of children’s brain to environmental influences and stressors that there is real potential for significant harm. This may include instilling and normalising obsessive compulsive or health anxious behaviours, damage to children’s sense of self and safety, their relationships, their trust in authority and care-givers, and their capacity to engage in normal social interaction and intimacy, both currently and long-term.

The last two years have taken a devastating toll on the well-being of children and young people. There is now compelling evidence of a significant increase in distress amongst children and young people since March 2020. There is also increasing evidence of physical harm to children as a result of the pandemic response. It is clear that for children and young people, COVID-19 does not pose significant risk. However, they are facing an unprecedented crisis of mental health and well-being. As we move to ‘living with the virus’, we must prioritise their recovery. Resources should now be redirected towards promoting health and well-being. Policy-makers and professionals should be reminded of trauma-informed practice – a concept promoted and accepted widely in schools and colleges pre-pandemic, through initiatives such as THRIVE and the Trauma-Informed Schools programme – and urgently promote recovery.

In the U.K., pre-pandemic, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was universally endorsed. Our legal, clinical and educational systems reflected the principle that children’s best interests are paramount. It is disturbing that, during the pandemic, this principle was forgotten. We must ask ourselves how we got to a point where young people were routinely subjected to harmful and unevidenced interventions. As we support their recovery, we must ensure that they are never subjected to such experiences again.

Dr. Zenobia Storah is a Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychologist who currently serves as Clinical Lead at the Knowsley Neurodevelopmental Pathway in Liverpool.

Dr. Ellen Townsend is Professor of Psychology in the Self-Harm Research Group at the University of Nottingham.

Dr. Allyson Pollock is Clinical Professor of Public Health at Newcastle University.

Sarah Waters is a Psychotherapist and DDP Practitioner.

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September 2022
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