Covid testing in places such as schools to find asymptomatic cases should stop, the head of the Oxford Vaccine Group has suggested.
Professor Sir Andrew Pollard told MPs on the Commons Science and Technology Committee that it was “absolutely critical we keep children in school”, adding the biggest impact of the pandemic had been the psychological effect of being forced to stay home.
However, Professor Lucy Chappell, chief scientific adviser to the Department of Health and Social Care, said the Government was committed to testing until at least January.
Prof Pollard told MPs: “Clearly, the large amount of testing in schools is very disruptive to the system, whether that is the individual child who is then isolating because they tested positive but they’re completely well, or because of the concerns that that raises more widely in the school – we’re aware of families taking their children out because someone’s tested positive in a school.
“So I think there is a huge impact of widespread testing in schools.
“I think probably we need to move in the pandemic, over this winter, maybe towards the end of the winter to a completely different system of clinically-driven testing.
“In other words, testing people who are unwell rather than having regular testing of those people who are well, because that does drive a lot of these actions that happen, particularly in schools, if you have lots of asymptomatic testing.”
Sir Andrew said unwell people should not be going to school, “but that isn’t the Covid-specific issue.”
He added: “That’s a general rule that if someone has the flu, they should be at home and not at school.”
He said it was “an inevitable future” not to be “testing at this rate for Covid forever”.
“So we need to think about how that transition works.
“There clearly is a lot more transmission at the moment and that does add some additional pressures on the NHS because there are some individuals going into hospital and more than there were before, but I think we are in improving situation.”
He said high vaccination rates and the booster programme – plus lots of infection in younger groups who will have gained immunity – means “at some point we will reach a more steady state with this virus that is likely more manageable”.
He added that “the problem is, we don’t know exactly when that is and there may still be some surprises around the corner”.
Also speaking to the committee, Prof Chappell, was asked whether the nation should move away from testing asymptomatic people.
She said: “So in the short term I think we should be continuing with testing, particularly symptomatic individuals.
“And I know that other groups are evaluating at what point we reconsider testing asymptomatic individuals beyond January, beyond spring.”
She added: “I would like to think that in five years’ time we won’t all be lateral flow testing.
“There’s a stretchable point between those five years clearly.”
She continued: “Between now and January, it’s clear that we’ve committed to testing.
“We are then reconsidering where we go beyond January, beyond spring.”