The government’s plan to test all students before they leave university was thrown into question on Sunday after the UK’s largest academic union raised “grave concerns” about the accuracy of the Covid-19 tests being used and warned that this week’s mass evacuation of students was a “recipe for chaos”.
The University and College Union (UCU) also said that many students have already returned home without being tested and it expects some will decline to take the voluntary test, because they do not wish to self-isolate in their halls of residence.
The union also stressed that not all universities have agreed to participate in the government’s mass asymptomatic testing scheme, which begins on Monday. The Department for Health and Social Care confirmed on Saturday that only 130 higher education institutions in the UK – 79% – have expressed an interest in taking part in the testing scheme. It is understood that at least 35 institutions are either carrying out their own testing regime, or not testing students at all.
The government is supplying universities with lateral flow tests, which can be self-administered by asymptomatic students and do not require laboratory processing, offering “rapid results within an hour”.
However, these tests have been criticised by experts in the British Medical Journal as an “unevaluated, under designed and costly mess”, with particular concerns raised over infected people receiving false negative results.
Government-backed assessments carried out by Public Health England’s Porton Down laboratory and the University of Oxford suggests the tests may miss as many as half of Covid-19 cases, depending on who is using them, and that they are unsuitable for a “test and release” strategy that will allow asymptomatic students to go home. The study found that the sensitivity of the test dropped from 79% to 58% when it was