Gavin Williamson has urged parents to keep testing themselves and their children amid a row about how well self-tests actually work.
The Education Secretary wrote to parents of children in secondary schools and colleges across the country and said: ‘We need you and your children to carry on testing twice a week.’
His letter insists the testing has ‘played a vital role’ in controlling the Covid outbreak despite concerns that the tests don’t work well.
One of Britain’s top Covid-fighting scientists, Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, of Oxford University, today said the constant testing of pupils was ‘disruptive’.
And there are concerns high rates of false positive results – when people are wrongly told they have the virus and have to self-isolate – mean pupils are spending time out of class unnecessarily.
The Government gives rapid lateral flow tests to pupils and staff in secondary schools and, although branded the NHS ‘self-tests’, they are not actually designed to be used by people swabbing themselves but by trained medical professionals.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has urged parents to keep testing themselves and their children for Covid twice a week to stop school outbreaks of the virus
Experts have warned that Covid testing in schools is hugely disruptive and should be scrapped after it emerged up to 60 per cent of positive tests turn out to be negative when checked (Pictured: A girl tests herself at a school in Halifax)
In March, the figure rose to 60 per cent for a week, the data revealed.
Professor Sir Andy Pollard, who led the Oxford vaccine programme, said the testing on such a huge scale was causing mass disruption.
He said children are not major drivers of transmission and added: ‘The testing itself is picking up lots of cases, causing classes to be sent home and so on.
‘We’ve got to get to a point where we’re not impacting on education. And I think that impact on education could be a reason for vaccination.’
But Mr Williamson said in an open letter: ‘With the increase in cases with variants of concern, it is important to continue regular testing in order to detect cases of coronavirus, stay ahead of the virus and keep Covid out of the classroom.
‘This means that regular asymptomatic testing for all will continue, and we need you and your children who are in secondary school or college to carry on testing at home, twice a week.
‘As you know, testing has been playing a vital role in our response to the virus. It is helping to break chains of transmission by identifying asymptomatic positive cases quickly.
‘This means those who test positive can self-isolate, keeping other pupils and students in face-to-face education.
‘Reporting all test results, positive or negative, helps the health experts have a clearer picture of any potential outbreaks in different parts of the country.’
Some of the highest infection rates in the country are currently among teenagers in secondary schools and colleges, and the Government must now consider whether to offer them vaccines in a bid to stop the virus spreading.
Experts on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation are understood to have raised ‘serious ethical concerns’ about inoculating children because of the tiny risk they face of becoming seriously ill.
The group will release fresh guidance on the highly controversial topic of vaccinating children by the end of the week, according to the Telegraph.
It will urge No10 to hold off jabbing under-18s in the immediate future and wait for more safety data to come out of the US and Israel, where the plans are already in motion.
Cabinet minister Liz Truss said No10 would look ‘very closely’ at advice from the panel, which has helped steer Downing Street through the pandemic.
Meanwhile, one of the Government’s senior scientific advisers warned of the ethical dilemma posed by vaccinating children — who face a one-in-a-million risk of dying from coronavirus.
SAGE’s Professor Calum Semple, an expert in outbreak medicine at the University of Liverpool, said he is against vaccinating the 14million children in the UK.
Children’s campaigners, who have raised opposition to any mandatory vaccination programme for school students, said they were ‘very reassured’ by the news.
But experts are divided on the topic, with some insisting it would help deal with the Indian variant.
Pfizer’s jab has already been approved for 12- to 15-year-olds by the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
But it hasn’t yet been deployed in the UK because ministers haven’t given the green light to expanding the roll-out. Professor Chris Whitty this week hinted that children could get vaccines to stop the virus disrupting their education.
Pfizer’s jab is already being used on children in the US — but concerns are mounting that it may be linked to heart damage in young adults. Some 226 myocarditis and pericarditis cases have been reported in the US following Pfizer and Moderna shots, mostly in men with an average age of 24.
Moderna’s vaccine is poised for approval in the same age group in the US and both companies, as well as Johnson & Johnson, have begun trials for under-12s.
UK parents have already hit out at plans to inoculate children, with 50,000 signing a petition against Covid vaccinations for youngsters.
Teaching unions, meanwhile, have offered tentative support for an under-18 jab roll-out, if it helps tackle disruption to schooling.
A Whitehall source told the Telegraph: ‘Nobody is going to green light the mass vaccination of children at this stage.
‘Scientists want to see more data from the US and elsewhere before taking a firm stand either way.
‘The JCVI will want to weigh up the benefits against the risks before vaccinating children and it wants more data.’
And International Trade Secretary Ms Truss this morning concurred that the JCVI would not be recommending jabs for children.
She told BBC Breakfast: ‘Of course the Government will look very closely at the JCVI’s recommendations.
‘It is my understanding that they are not recommending the vaccination of under-18s and we will be saying more in due course about that.’
Meanwhile, Professor Semple said he is ‘veering on not vaccinating children’ because of their low risk of severe disease.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme today, he said he would prioritise vaccinating hard to reach vulnerable people in the UK and sending jabs abroad.
Professor Semple said: ‘The first thing to remember here is that risk and severe disease in children — I’m talking about admission to hospital, admission to intensive care and death — the risk of death is one in a million.
MR WILLIAMSON’S LETTER IN FULL
The Prime Minister announced on 14 June that step 4 of the roadmap would have to be paused for up to four weeks because of the spread of the new variant.
With the increase in cases with variants of concern, it is important to continue regular testing in order to detect cases of coronavirus, stay ahead of the virus and keep covid out of the classroom.
This means that regular asymptomatic testing for all will continue, and we need you and your children who are in secondary school or college to carry on testing at home, twice a week.
As you know, testing has been playing a vital role in our response to the virus. It is helping to break chains of transmission by identifying asymptomatic positive cases quickly. This means those who test positive can self-isolate, keeping other pupils and students in face-to-face education. Reporting all test results, positive or negative, helps the health experts have a clearer picture of any potential outbreaks in different parts of the country.
I want to thank you all for your efforts so far. I know that this has been an enormously challenging time for families, who have faced many pressures over the past 18 months. Your continued support in helping us fight the virus has been vital.
Secondary pupils and college students, households and their bubbles, along with school and college staff have now completed more than 50 million tests since these were introduced back in January. That really is an incredible number and we need you to continue your efforts.
It is wonderful to see so many children back in school and through your actions we can work together to keep everyone safe ensuring we can also keep your children in school with their friends.
Letter posted online by the Department for Education.
Experts on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) are said to have raised ‘serious ethical concerns’ about vaccinating children – because of the low risk of youngsters becoming serious illness through Covid. It comes amid a kick-back from parents, with 50,000 people recently signing a petition against Covid vaccinations for youngsters. Pictured left: Health Secretary Matt Hancock. Pictured right: Campaigner Molly Kingsley from UsforThem
‘And that’s not a figure I’m plucking from the air as a sort of average or guess. That’s a quantifiable risk.
‘So we’re talking about vaccinating children here mainly to protect public health and reduce transmission and it’s accepted that teenagers who are biologically more like adults are more likely to transmit but the younger children really are not.
‘The balance here is should the vaccine be pushed into the arms of hard to reach adults and should we spend efforts persuading hesitant adults to have a vaccine.
‘And if we do have lots of vaccine left over, should we be sending it to countries in Europe and Africa and Asia where they haven’t got enough vaccine.’
He added that the spread of the Indian ‘Delta’ variant in schools should not be a cause for concern because it does not cause more serious illness in youngsters.
Professor Semple: ‘Yes, the virus is spreading in schools because it’s got nowhere else to hide at the moment and that’s confounding the challenge too.
‘The Delta variant is more transmissible but it’s not causing greater disease in children per se.
‘It’s just that it’s not able to cause greater disease in the older adults because their vaccinated and the vaccine’s still pretty good.
‘So I’m veering on the not vaccinating children, only because of the ethical issues and the need to get the vaccine into older people.’
The Government should not roll-out its mass Covid vaccine programme for children until scientists get ‘more data on the risks’, top scientists will reportedly warn
Why children are less affected by Covid-19
Children are less at risk of developing severe Covid symptoms and dying from the disease due to a host of differences between the bodies and immune systems of youngsters and adults, a study shows.
Australian researchers have identified several specific physiological differences which may explain why Covid-19 is rarely severe or fatal in children.
These include strong, undamaged cells in their blood vessels which prevent inflammation and clotting; elevated levels of vitamin D; an immune system that is both fast acting and well-oiled; and fewer ACE2 receptors, which the coronavirus uses to infect cells.
While Covid-19 causes well-documented respiratory problems in adults, particularly the vulnerable and elderly, other respiratory conditions also plague children.
However, society’s youngest are demonstrably less affected by coronavirus infection, making up only a tiny proportion of cases, hospital admissions and deaths.
A recent study from the US looked at hospital admissions of children at seven different hospitals and found just just four per cent of children test positive for the virus.
The research looked at tests of more than 135,000 children who went to hospital for various reasons before September 8.
It revealed only 5,374 (4.0 per cent) of patients tested positive and, of this small percentage, only 359 (6.7 per cent) were hospitalised, with 99 in intensive care.
Eight of the infected patients (0.15 per cent) later died. Six of the deaths were patients with ‘complex preexisting comorbidities’, the scientists say.
But why this is the case has thus far remained a mystery, with scientists and doctors trying to get to the bottom of the mystery.
Meanwhile, children’s campaigners, UsforThem, today praised the news.
Co-founder Molly Kinsgley said: ‘UsforThem are very reassured to see that JCVI are expected to recommend against a mass roll out of the Covid-19 vaccine to children in the immediate future.
‘Whilst we recognise there may be a need for children with serious vulnerabilities to have the Covid-19 vaccine, we have always had serious concerns about the appropriateness of reliance on emergency use authorisation for a mass roll out to children given the lack of adequate, long term safety data.
‘We are pleased to see that the JCVI have appeared to recognised the severity of the issues at stake and have, in our view, sensibly and rightly, followed the example set by the German STIKO in declining to recommend the vaccine for mass roll out in children at this stage.
‘To suggest, as Chris Whitty did in the Q&A to the press conference earlier this week, that a benefit to children taking the vaccine would be to prevent school disruption is disingenuous.
‘Once all adults have been vaccinated there should simply be no more school disruption and it would be unconscionable to suggest that education – which is a basic human right of children – is dependent on the willingness of the cohort or individual children to take a vaccine, and especially one for which there is no long term safety data.
‘If what is being reported is correct it is a rare example of adults finally doing the right thing by children. We applaud the integrity shown by JCVI and hope that others in a position of responsibility for the health and welfare of children now follow suit.’
It comes after Professor Chris Whitty earlier this week hinted children could be given Covid jabs to stop the virus disrupting their education or increasing their future risk of physical or mental health problems.
England’s Chief Medical Officer (CMO) told a Downing Street news conference that the ‘wider question’ was about whether such a programme would help limit Covid’s disruption to schooling.
He said officials were still considering whether to vaccinate children but the ‘big priority’ was reaching over-18s in the summer.
Speaking at the Downing Street press conference earlier this week, he said: ‘The key thing for children is safety.
‘We know that the risks in terms of of physical disease to children, other than for some children with significant pre-existing problems of physical health, are much, much lower than for adults.
‘So you wouldn’t want to vaccinate unless the vaccine was very safe. Vaccines are now being licensed in some countries and we’re accruing safety data on the safety of these vaccines in children.’
England’s Chief Medical Officer (CMO) told a Downing Street news conference that the ‘wider question’ was about whether such a programme would help limit Covid’s disruption to schooling
Scientists on the JCVI will reportedly recommend the Government looks to the US and Israel where children are already being vaccinated.
In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that all children over 12 should get a Covid jab in May. Some 7.6million 12- to 18-year-olds have already had a first dose while 4.7million have had their second.
Meanwhile, Israel has recently started vaccinating children aged 12 to 15. France has also opened up vaccinations for children aged 12 and over.
If the UK Government does push on for a vaccine roll-out for children, it will most likely use the Pfizer vaccine.
The jab has already been deemed safe for use in those aged 12-15 by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
A senior government source told the Telegraph: ‘The Pfizer vaccine has been licensed for 12 to 15-year-olds by the MHRA, and a number of countries will be vaccinating children in those age groups.
‘Ministers have not received advice, and no decisions have been taken.’
AstraZeneca’s vaccine will almost certainly not be recommended for use in children, having already been advised against for under-40s by the JCVI because of its links to extremely rare blood clots in the brain.
The issue of vaccinating children is contentious, because studies show there is an extremely low risk of children becoming seriously ill through Covid.
The main benefit, it is thought, is to limit the spread of the virus in schools.
It comes as more than 50,000 people signed a petition against Covid vaccinations for youngsters
A study earlier this year revealed that those who do become infected three weeks after receiving one dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech or AstraZeneca vaccine were between 38 per and 49 per cent less likely to pass the virus on to their household contacts than those who were unvaccinated.
There is also data to suggest that teenagers are more likely to spread Covid — and this is one of the reasons behind potentially vaccinating children in the UK.
It comes as more than 50,000 people have now signed a petition against Covid vaccinations for youngsters.
The appeal to Parliament had raked in 54,895 as of Tuesday morning as it called on the government to avoid jabbing youngsters.
Retired paediatrician Dr Ros Jones created the page and called for officials to delay giving doses to under 18s until after ‘Phase 3 trials are complete’.
She wrote: ‘A risk vs benefit calculation does not support giving COVID-19 vaccines, which use novel technologies and are still in Phase 3 trials, to healthy children.
‘Any rollout should not start until trials are complete and all findings are published and peer-reviewed on long-term safety data.
‘Healthy children are at low risk from COVID-19 yet face known and unknown risks from COVID-19 vaccines.
‘Rare, but serious, adverse events and deaths are being reported to monitoring systems around the world.
‘Official guidance is updated as the side-effects become more apparent. Giving Covid-19 vaccines to healthy children to protect adults is unethical and unjustifiable.
‘The Government has an ethical duty to act with caution and proportionality.’
The Government responded: ‘The Government will continue to evaluate evidence and assess expert opinion before making a decision on routinely vaccinating children under 18 years old.’
Despite the backlash from parents, teachers’ unions appear to be mostly in favour of jabbing children.
Joint General Secretary of the NEU Kevin Courtney said: ‘The NEU would welcome the extension of vaccination to school students when and if that is approved – this would lead to children missing less in-person education.
‘In the meantime we should continue to take all appropriate measures, including face coverings and better ventilation, to reduce the risks of transmission.’