All schools and colleges in Wales are to be offered rapid coronavirus tests in the first programme of its kind in the UK, the Welsh government has said.
The 30-minute tests will be available from next month, at the start of the school day for students or staff who have been in close contact with an infected person and are at risk of transmitting Covid-19.
The scheme is the first countrywide testing programme for schools in the UK and follows the rollout of mass testing to several care homes and university students before the Christmas break.
Kirsty Williams, the Welsh education minister, said: “Throughout this pandemic our priority has been to deliver maximum learning with as minimal disruption as possible. The plans we are announcing today will play an integral role in delivering on that priority.
“We recognise that it has not been easy for pupils and staff who have been required to self-isolate as a result of having been identified as a ‘close contact’ and we recognise the impact it has had on face-to-face teaching.”
Secondary schools and colleges will be the first to receive the rapid tests in the new year, followed by primary schools and childcare staff. The programme will use lateral flow tests, which can return results in 20 to 30 minutes, and were initially piloted in Liverpool.
Their use has proved controversial, however, as a government study revealed that it identified just five out of 10 positive cases that had been detected by standard coronavirus tests, and seven out of 10 of those with high amounts of the virus.
Some experts have called for an end to the use of these tests in universities and care homes, saying that they gave false reassurance. They are likely to prove similarly controversial if they are used, as proposed, to decide whether pupils or staff can remain in school rather than self-isolate.
Vaughan Gething, the Welsh health minister, said it was vital that people understood that testing alone could not eradicate the risks from Covid-19 and that it needed to be seen alongside other measures, such as social distancing and hand hygiene.
He added: “The lessons we have learnt from using [lateral flow tests] in pilots in higher education institutions across Wales and secondary schools in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhondda Cynon Taf will help inform how we can successfully deliver lateral flow testing in schools and other education settings in the future.”
The Welsh government said it would minimise disruption to learning because those who tested negative would be able to remain in classrooms instead of self-isolating.