Covid testing in schools should be brought to an end for the sake of children's education, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has urged.
The current regime in secondary schools - where pupils are told to take two lateral flow tests each week - is causing “unnecessary chaos”, according to Dr Camilla Kingdon, president of the RCPCH.
She told The Telegraph that children, who are not at risk from the virus, should not be forced to “carry the burden” of the pandemic.
"You are asking completely healthy children to test, with the potential to be excluded [from school], there is just a real concern that we are increasing a level of chaos into the system that is unnecessary," she said.
Headteachers have been told by ministers that many of the restrictions that were in place in the last academic year are no longer necessary. Children are now only meant to self-isolate if they have tested positive with a PCR test or have symptoms.
But after detecting a rise in cases, schools and local councils across the country have started to step up measures like asking children to go back to wearing face masks and bringing in new self-isolation rules such as telling children to stay at home if a sibling has tested positive.
It comes as Tory MPs are warning that the Government failed to publish the results of a review of mass testing in schools by the end of September.
Miriam Cates, MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge, said that mass testing in schools is “utterly pointless” and “just another example of treating children as second class citizens”.
She said it is having a “huge impact” on pupils’ attendance, adding: "In my constituency, absence rates are considerably higher than normal. Not all those children are actually ill but because they have had a positive test they are not allowed in school for ten days.
“There is absolutely no reason to continue with mass testing children. All it’s doing is prolonging the disruption and prolonging the fear.”
This week it emerged that Eton College has gone into "lockdown" with some pupils confined to their boarding house for 48 hours after a rise in cases.
There are also concerns about the number of false positives arising from lateral flow tests, with the latest official data showing that they are on the rise among school children. This week the UK Health Security Agency said it was looking into why this might be.
Steve Brine, the Conservative MP for Winchester, said that constantly asking children to take Covid tests is “hammering” away at their mental health.
“We can't carry on with this mass asymptomatic testing forever,” he said. “The country is looking the other way, many people have moved on from the pandemic. But in the world of education it is still a pandemic. What happened to the end of September review, what evidence was put to ministers?”
He said there are a “heck of a lot” of MPs who want to see testing in schools wound down, adding: “I simply don’t understand what the strategy is any more. I thought it was to project the vulnerable. We have long ago done that and are now well progressed in booster jabs. It seems to me that ‘Zero Covid’ strategy is alive and well.”
Karl McCartney, MP for Lincoln, said tests are causing needless disruption in schools. “More and more parents across the country are beginning to say that it’s not a nice thing to have to do and certainly not twice a week. It’s an imposition on their lives and freedoms, and it’s treating them differently to adults.”
Many parents feel it is “unconscionable” to impose a greater burden on children than the rest of society, according to Molly Kingsley, co-founder of the parent campaign group UsForThem.
“The general feeling from parents is that this has just gone on for too long,” she said. “These measures are not benign, we shouldn’t be disrupting children’s education, save in the most exceptional of cases.”
Prof Allyson Pollock, an expert in public health at Nottingham University, said the biggest problem with lateral flow testing in schools is that there has been no evaluation of its effectiveness.
The impact of mass testing in schools
“The whole purpose of a test is to try and stop transmission and infection,” she said. “We have no evidence to show that mass testing in schools will do that.”
The RCPCH has called on the Government to allow schools to “rethink” their approach to managing Covid, saying: “Children and teenagers need to focus on their education and school attendance must be encouraged without being interrupted by routine testing of asymptomatic children and teenagers.”
A Government spokesperson said that mass testing in schools was reviewed as part of the Winter Plan, which concluded that it was a “valuable tool in minimising disruption” and should continue until the Christmas holidays.
“We strongly encourage older students and staff to test twice a week and report the results to help reduce the spread of the virus and keep more students in the classroom, the very best place for them to learn,” a spokesman said.