The UK government is hoping students will perform their own COVID-19 tests as schools reopen across England this week.
After a year of disruption, schools opened their doors to students from Monday (local time) with every household with high school students offered two rapid testing kits per week.
Students will swab themselves for the virus, with the lateral flow test offering results in less than 30 minutes.
But already experts have raised doubts about the scheme.
Some believe students who are desperate to see their friends, or parents who need to return to work, will have little incentive to perform the tests properly — if at all.
Dr Mike Gill, a former director of public health for South East England, said the plan was particularly concerning given all students have returned on the same day.
“I think it could be disastrous,” Dr Gill said.
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“What is the motivation of the person doing the test or supervising the test to get one result rather than another?”
Families can also choose whether they participate in the scheme.
“The prospect of having to take more time off work because your kid can’t go to school must weigh [on their minds],” he said
The UK government said students will first be tested three times at school, before being taught how to perform their own tests.
“We’ve got 50 million testing kits available. I think people do understand how to use them,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said last week.
“And we’re very confident they will be of use in helping to keep the disease under control.”
Schools were fully reopened from Monday, after months of closure due to concerns about COVID-19.(
AP: Christopher Furlong
The rules for primary schools are different. They have also fully reopened although pupils will not have to take COVID-19 tests or wear masks.
How effective are these tests?
The lateral flow tests are not considered as reliable as the “gold standard” PCR tests.
Analysis published in the British Medical Journal found the rapid tests missed 60 per cent of asymptomatic cases during a trial in the UK city of Liverpool.
They’re also more likely than a PCR test to return a false-positive result, triggering a period of unnecessary self-isolation.
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According to Dr Gill, the government is treating the tests like “fairy dust”.
“If these tests were any good, they might indeed make a difference,” Dr Gill said.
“[But] putting things up straight onto your tonsils or miles up your nose in order to get a proper swab is not a straightforward business.”
British kids are back at school, but they have to self-administer COVID-19 tests.(
Reuters: Kevin Coombs
He said students who record negative tests might be given a false sense of security and be less compliant with social distancing rules.
The UK government has also said social distancing will still be enforced regardless of test results and masks will be compulsory for secondary students.
Officials stress that testing is only supposed to act as an early-warning system and is not a silver bullet.
Parents feel ‘torn between two places’
The return to school will come as a huge relief for many parents and children.
Alice Hunter, a mother of two from West Yorkshire, said homeschooling had been a “very stressful” experience.
“We’ve been counting down the days,” she said.
“Obviously I love my kids … but there’s only so much you can do.”
Like millions of UK parents, Ms Hunter has been trying to educate her children while also trying to work from home.
Alice Hunter is the mother of two children and has been homeschooling during the coronavirus pandemic in the UK.(
“I feel that guilt that I’m not being able to be very present and ‘on the ball’ at work, but also I’ve got my children to look after.
“You’re kind of torn between two places.”
Her son started school last year between shutdowns and has found online learning difficult.
“He’s already starting to get the foundations of learning to read and write, but I can’t really teach him that in the same way he would have learned in a school environment.
“This has been a massive setback.”
How will kids catch up?
Russell Viner, professor of adolescent health at University College London, said children had become “collateral damage” in the fight against the virus.
“There are some children who actually enjoy not being at school,” he said.
“But for the great majority, it has reduced their wellbeing [and] it reduces their mental health.”
Professor Viner added that not only have children missed out on education, they’ve had fewer opportunities to make friends and to engage in physical exercise.
“[Those issues] will stack up over the course of our children’s lives,” he said.
Professor Viner, who is also the president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said the government was right to prioritise reopening schools while the rest of the country remains shut down.
“We closed down our children’s lives to protect the middle-aged and elderly, and it’s right that we should in the short term,” he said.
“[But] we really have to think about whether that’s reasonable and rational in a longer sense.”
Ms Hunter said any future school shutdowns would be hard to handle, because she’s used up all of her leave from work.
However, she’s more worried about her children’s development.
“They’re just not making those friendships and having the relationship playing with other children and I think that is a huge thing that could affect them,” she said.
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