Ignore Government Guidance and Tighten Covid Rules at School, Teaching Unions Tell Members

With the Government so far refusing to heed calls from teaching unions to tighten restrictions further in schools, the unions are fighting back, telling their members to ignore Government guidance and introduce stricter Covid rules anyway. The Telegraph has the story.

The UK’s largest teacher union has issued a “safety checklist” for schools, saying its recommendations are designed to “slow the spread” of the virus.

But the National Education Union’s advice – which includes a return of bubbles and staggered break times – has been described by parents as a “pandemic straitjacket” for children.

The Department for Education (DfE) has told headteachers they may need to combine classes to redeploy teachers to cover lessons in order to keep schools open if staff sickness spirals out of control.

However, the union briefing document says that classes should not be combined since this would “increase virus transmission” and adds that teachers should not be “routinely expected” to cover classes, advising that if they are this should be “urgently raised” with their union.

The document is also backed by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers as well as Unite, GMB and Unison whose members include teaching assistants and other school staff.

Family groups and MPs have warned that this “inflexible and militant attitude” is likely to keep more children out of the classroom.

“It’s incredible to see these unions suggest something that goes so far beyond what the Government has required for schools,” said Liz Cole of the parent campaign group UsForThem. “This is desperately unfair to children and plunges them back into a pandemic straitjacket.”

The current Government guidance states that children should only be off school if they have tested positive or if they are showing Covid symptoms.

But the unions say that pupils should isolate if one of their family members has tested positive, and only return to school if they have received a negative PCR result.

“Where close contacts are unable to get hold of [lateral flow devices] due to supply issues, they should be supported to work from home for the isolation period,” it says.

Worth reading in full.

The news seems to confirm the thesis of Dr. Ben Irvine, that trade unions have played a central role in driving restrictions both at the start and throughout the pandemic.

On the theme of educational establishments going well beyond Government guidance in their enthusiasm for Covid precautions, a reader sent us this sorry tale of his child’s nursery in north west London.

Government Suspends Access to Confirmatory PCR Tests for Asymptomatic LFT Positives, Raising Fears of False Positives Consigning Thousands to Their Homes

In what was presented as a relaxation of testing requirements, but is in fact a withdrawal of service, the UKHSA has announced that as of January 11th confirmatory PCR tests will no longer be recommended – and thus unavailable – for those who test positive on a lateral flow test (LFT) without symptoms. MailOnline has more.

Confirmatory PCR tests will no longer be needed for people testing positive for Covid on a lateral flow test, health chiefs confirmed today.

Previous guidance to back up positive rapid tests with more accurate lab results will be removed from January 11th.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) announced the move amid sky-high case numbers across England. 

The move will free up capacity in laboratories for PCR tests for those who have Covid symptoms.

People who receive a positive result on a lateral flow device (LFD) will be required to self-isolate immediately for seven days, without requiring PCR confirmation. 

UKHSA said this is a temporary measure while Covid rates remain high across the UK.

Officials said that while levels of Covid are high, the “vast majority” of people with positive LFD results can be confident they have the virus.

They estimated the number of “false positives” results, where people without the virus get a positive LFD result, are as low as three in 10,000.

However with just under 1.5 million of LFD tests being conducted across the UK every day this could lead to thousands of people who don’t have Covid having to isolate. 

People who have Covid symptoms, such as a high temperature, a new, continuous cough, or change in sense of taste and/or smell should still get a PCR test, UKHSA said. 

UKHSA has said that LFTs are 80% effective at finding people with high viral loads of Covid. However, Professor Sheila Bird, a former programme leader of the MRC Biostatistics Unit at the University of Cambridge, said the 80% figure is based on data from the Alpha and Delta waves. “For transparency, results for these Omicron-era dual-testing evaluations should be placed in the public domain at the earliest opportunity,” she said.

Anecdotally I have been told by several people that they tested positive on LFT but then subsequently tested negative on PCR. Some of them were symptomatic. They said the person on the phone at Test and Trace told them this was very common at the moment as the LFTs were cross-reacting with other viruses and producing false positives that the PCR test then overruled.

If this is the case – and I have no reason to doubt it – then despite the change being billed as a solution to the staffing crisis it will only make it worse as thousands of people have to isolate from LFT false positives for which no confirmatory PCR test is available.

Since mass testing of the healthy has clearly failed to contain the virus – with new figures from the ONS today showing that an estimated 6% of the country was infected at the end of December – and with so many protected via natural immunity and vaccination, and with Omicron so mild, the Government needs to end all mass testing without delay and limit testing to contexts, such as hospitals and care homes, where it is needed to diagnose illness and protect the vulnerable.

Stop Press: The Mail is reporting that the Government is set to scrap all pre-departure Covid traveller tests today in a boost for the tourism industry, while the airline industry is demanding the Government goes a step further and axes all travel tests. Good news – but is it not time to accept that mass testing no longer serves any useful purpose (if it ever did) and we need to end this expensive drag on our economy and lives?

Covid Testing Rules to Be Relaxed to Address Staff Shortages

Covid testing rules are to be relaxed as part of efforts to shorten isolation periods and ease staffing shortages, according to the Telegraph.

Fears are growing that staff absences have become as big a problem as Covid itself, with bin collections delayedtrains cancelled and 17 hospitals in Greater Manchester announcing on Tuesday that they would be suspending some non-urgent surgery, with 15% of staff off sick.

Millions of people who test positive on lateral flow devices will be told they do not need to take follow-up PCR tests, which currently delay the official start of isolation for hundreds of thousands.

Health officials have drawn up plans to limit PCR tests to those with Covid symptoms, allowing people who are asymptomatic – around 40% of cases – to return to work more quickly. More than 1.2 million people are isolating after testing positive in the last week, with hundreds of thousands more waiting for tests or results.

The changes, expected on Wednesday, come as more than half a dozen NHS hospital trusts have declared critical incidents. Call handlers at North East Ambulance Service were told in an internal memo to advise heart attack patients to get a lift to hospital, rather than wait for a 999 response.

Meanwhile, offices remained largely empty on the first working day of the new year. Schools said staff shortages in coming days could further damage children’s education, with as many as one in five staff missing at the start of the term.

The question is though, given that the virus is clearly everywhere and none of the measures have succeeded in containing it, why continue with mass testing of the healthy at all?

Worth reading in full.

Travel Firms Charging up to £150 for ‘Cheaper’ Lateral Flow Tests

PCR Covid tests for travel have been scrapped but holidaymakers still face extortionate bills for travel testing, with some providers asking for up to 20 times the price of lateral flow tests in Europe. The Telegraph has the story.

The Government is due to launch a new “bespoke” list of lateral flow test providers… with fully jabbed travellers able to book their swabs ready for their return next week.

However, analysis by the Telegraph of the current firms on the official list that already offer lateral flow swabs show they are charging up to 20 times the price of tests available in Europe.

The Government’s switch from the more expensive PCR tests to cheaper lateral flow swabs for returning travellers is designed to give foreign travel a boost by saving families hundreds of pounds.

But the analysis of existing providers reveals the costs range from £17.99 – offered by 001 Expert Covid Testing U.K. – to £150 by the Private GP Clinic in Sevenoaks, Kent.

At least half a dozen are pitched at £100 or more, although the costs were inflated by offering a bespoke on-site testing service rather than the “click and collect at home” tests the Government has allowed.

A significant number were also priced at £50 or more, compared with all the major European destinations offering lateral flow tests at €30 or less (£25.32). Even the cheapest failed to disclose in their headline price advertised on Gov.uk that packaging and posting will add £10 to the cost.

From Monday, any fully jabbed holidaymaker will be able to use lateral flow tests on their return to the U.K. If they test positive, they can get a free PCR test on the NHS to check their result.

PCR tests have averaged around £70, with the most expensive at £300. It is understood the “bespoke” list for lateral flow tests will include 25 firms specifically authorised to provide them.

Worth reading in full.

Germany Scraps Free Covid LFTs, Pushing Unvaccinated into Getting Jabbed

Germans who have not been vaccinated against Covid (or have not recently recovered from the virus) must now pay for tests in order to attend public gatherings, with free lateral flow tests having been scrapped by the Government. Added financial pressure is expected to nudge those who have decided not to get vaccinated into abandoning their positions. The Guardian has the story.

Public gatherings across Germany have since August 23rd been allowed to go ahead if they follow the so-called “3G” rule (short for geimpft, genesen oder getestet), meaning participants have to show proof of either vaccination, a recent recovery from the virus, or an up-to-date test result.

A large-scale infrastructure offering free Government-subsidised rapid antigen tests that sprung up across Germany over the spring and summer made testing part of people’s everyday routine while vaccinations were still hard to come by.

But as of October 11th the Government says it can no longer justify paying for free tests out of the public purse since all residents over the age of 12 can now get the jab if they want to.

The hope is that the cost and inconvenience of paying for coronavirus tests will help to boost Germany’s stagnating vaccination rate, a problem politicians did little to address while the country was locked in election campaign mode.

Similar plans are being drawn up in England which could push the unvaccinated to get jabbed if a similar vaccine passport scheme is introduced later this year.

Worth reading in full.

Government Considering Scrapping Free Covid Tests, Freeing up Billions of Pounds

Free Covid tests could be scrapped under new plans to save billions of pounds, with free tests to be given only in high-risk settings such as care homes. This would mean that a Covid passport system wherein people had to prove either that they had been vaccinated or that they had recently tested negative for the virus would place those who had chosen not to get vaccinated under further financial strain. France decided to start charging for tests straight after the introduction of vaccine passports was announced in July. The Telegraph has the story.

Discussions are under way in the Government to scale back the arrangements that allow everyone to get a lateral flow test and some people to get PCR tests without paying…

The new system could see free tests provided only in high-risk settings such as care homes, hospitals and schools, as well as for people with symptoms, though details are not yet agreed.

The U.K. is an international outlier on the issue, with Germany and France moving to end universal free testing this month

Britain also carries out many more tests than other countries, 4,022 per 1,000 people at the end of last month compared to 1,268 in Spain and 885 in Germany, according to Our World in Data.

The costs are sizable, with one insider citing it as the equivalent of 1p on income tax, and there are fears taxes would have to rise were the scheme to continue.  

A Whitehall source supportive of ending mass free testing said: “It’s agreed that universal access isn’t sustainable or necessary given high vaccination levels.

“We now need to decide what the parameters should be that reasonably qualify access to free testing.” …

It is unclear where Boris Johnson is on the matter, but the Prime Minister is expected to have the ultimate say on whether and when the free mass testing system should change.

Downing Street is understood to be playing down the chances of mass free testing ending over the winter, given the ongoing Covid uncertainty. 

Worth reading in full.

Holidaymakers Could Be Forced to Film Themselves Taking LFTs

Concerned that British holidaymakers arriving back in the country may lie when submitting lateral flow test results, ministers are planning on requiring testing to be done during video calls with ‘health advisers’. The Mail has the story.

The Government is planning to replace the requirement for double-vaccinated travellers to take a PCR test on their return to Britain with a much cheaper lateral flow swab.

But the Health Secretary is said to be concerned that those taking the tests could lie about the results.

He is proposing travellers do their lateral flow test on video calls supervised by a health adviser from a private firm, the Times reported.

This is similar to the way some pre-departure tests which were scrapped last weekend were conducted.

No date has been set for the change but there is speculation among travel industry leaders that it will be around October 25th, the start of half term for many families. …

Airlines and tour operators have been hit hard during the pandemic, and have accused the Government of being too slow to relax and simplify the rules for international travel.

Worth reading in full.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid Tests Positive for Covid

Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who has had two doses of the AstraZeneca Covid vaccine, is self-isolating with his family after he tested positive for the virus. Javid says his symptoms are “very mild” and has urged unvaccinated Brits to get ‘jabbed’ “as soon as you can”.

BBC News has the story.

Mr Javid, who became Health Secretary in June, said he had taken a lateral flow test after feeling a “bit groggy” on Friday night and it was positive. 

He said he was now self-isolating until he got the results of a PCR test. …

In a video posted on his Twitter feed, Mr Javid said: “I was feeling a bit groggy last night, so I took a lateral flow test this morning and it’s come out positive, so I’m now self-isolating at home with my family until I get the results of a PCR test.” 

“I’m grateful that I’ve had two jabs of the vaccine and so far my symptoms are very mild.” 

He urged people who had not been vaccinated yet to “get out there and get them as soon as you can”.

Mr Javid also said people who feel groggy or come into contact with someone who is positive should take a lateral flow test.

“If everyone plays their part, you’re not only protecting yourself and your loved ones but you’re also safeguarding the NHS and helping to preserve our way of life,” the Health Secretary added.

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: Half the Cabinet could be pinged within a few days, according to MailOnline, including Boris.

Lateral Flow Tests Too Inaccurate for Mass Testing, Major Review Finds

Lateral flow tests (LFTs) are too inaccurate to be used in mass screening in schools and workplaces, a major review led by Jon Deeks, Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Birmingham, has concluded. The Telegraph has the details.

A Cochrane review of 64 studies found that asymptomatic testing only picked up around 50% of cases, and picked up far more false than real positives when infection rates were low in the community.

False results from lateral flow Covid tests may mean workplaces and schools will be needlessly forced to close even though the scheme was set up to keep them open, experts cautioned.

The group concluded that mass testing policies had been implemented “without any supporting real-world evidence”.

Jon Deeks, the review author and a Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Birmingham, said it was “shocking” that the Government had allowed the rollout of such a “large, invasive and expensive” testing programme without the data to back it up. 

“One of the issues which should have been picked up is these tests work a lot less well in people who are asymptomatic, and the Government has not been clear about that,” he said.

“It is being used in ways which actually risk people getting false reassurance when they miss cases, and getting false positives, and that has been a big problem in schools. There are instances when whole classes have been sent home – effectively, 100 people put into isolation.”

Prof Deeks added: “So I think there are big problems in the way that we’re using this. And when prevalence drops you get more false positives and fewer true positives, that’s a mathematical certainty, and there is a point where you should stop. We may already be at that point.

“When is it that we are actually going to be doing more harm than good? These testing policies have been implemented without any supporting real-world evidence.”

The review calculates that at current virus prevalence rates of 0.5%, around 72% of positives would be false.

In terms of not missing infections, the review found the tests correctly identified only 58% of those who were infected but had no symptoms, and missed 42%. It did not acknowledge, though, that where these asymptomatic infections are identified by PCR tests (as most of them are), the PCR positives are likely to be false or cold positives themselves.

The review found the tests to be more accurate in people with symptoms, estimating the LFTs would correctly identify around 72% of people with symptoms who had Covid, and miss 28%.

The researchers suggested the tests would be better used for symptomatic people, and that any positives should also be re-tested with a PCR test to reduce the chance of false positives (though they didn’t note that PCR tests are more sensitive than LFTs so are more not less likely to pick up cold positives).

Dr Susan Hopkins, PHE’s COVID-19 Strategic Response Director, defended the testing programme, essentially saying every little helps:

Rapid tests are effective at detecting Covid in people that are highly infectious, both with and without symptoms. Every day, rapid testing is helping us find cases of COVID-19 that we wouldn’t otherwise know about, breaking chains of transmission and potentially saving lives.

Mass screening of asymptomatic people to try to pick up invisible, isolated infections is an exercise fraught with pitfalls, as experts have been warning for months and Professor Deeks’ review now confirms. The Government needs to heed the lessons of this review and abandon its costly and invasive effort to make reopening society dependent on constant testing for a disease almost no one has. Ministers need to plot a much clearer and swifter path back to normal – a normal which doesn’t involve testing week in, week out for a disease for which you have no symptoms.

More Than 200,000 Schoolchildren Currently Self-Isolating

With mass testing of schoolchildren happening every week – and the fact that those testing positive and their contacts are required to self-isolate – it is not surprising that more than 200,000 children were at home isolating at the end of last week, according to official estimates. MailOnline has the details.

More than nine in 10 pupils attended schools in England last week – but a growing number of children were self-isolating at home due to possible contact with COVID-19 cases, Government figures show.

Attendance in state schools last week was the highest it has been at any point during the pandemic, the Department for Education (DfE) analysis shows.

But the data suggests that 169,000 pupils were out of class and self-isolating on Thursday last week due to potential contact with a case of coronavirus.

The DfE estimates that approximately 2% of all state school pupils on roll up to 201,000 children did not attend school for COVID-19 related reasons on March 18th, up from 1% on March 11th.

This includes 127,000 pupils who have been self-isolating due to a potential contact with a COVID-19 case from inside the educational setting, and a further 42,000 pupils who were self-isolating due to a possible contact outside of school.

Meanwhile, 21,000 pupils were absent because they suspected they had COVID-19, 7,000 were off after testing positive for COVID-19, and 4,000 were absent as their school was closed due to Covid-19 reasons.

Secondary schools in England were given flexibility to stagger the return of their pupils between March 8th and 12th as these students were being asked to take voluntary COVID-19 tests on site as part of their return.

Overall, attendance in state schools was 91% on March 18th, up from 89% on March 11th when some secondary schools were still phasing in the return of pupils due to the logistics of mass testing.

Around 89% of secondary school pupils were in class on March 18th a similar proportion to the start of the second week of schools reopening in England.

But attendance in primary schools fell to 93% on Thursday last week from 95% the previous week, the figures show.

Perhaps most shocking is that 200,000+ were self-isolating last week even though just 0.067% of the millions of tests carried out came back positive. Given that this is below the estimated false positive rate of the lateral flow tests of 0.32% (the FPR can differ by age group and is thought to be lower in younger people), this suggests almost all of the positives are not real infections, or at least not contagious.

The Government’s refusal to allow confirmatory testing, either by PCR or by a second lateral flow test, prevents many of these false positives being identified and the needless harm of self-isolation being avoided.

If the Government is going to insist on continuing the pandemic-perpetuating practice of mass testing, the least it can do is allow the escape route of a second test for the victims of the imperfect tests.

The Mail report is worth reading in full.