Lateral Flow Tests: another policy error


The end of term draws near, and so too does one of the government’s headaches – students going home. With the mass movement of students due to take place within the second peak of infection rates, there is the potential for another wave of unintentional virus spreading at a time when the NHS is under the most strain.

The solution in which the government has decided to put its trust is the Lateral Flow Test, a rapid-testing system piloted at Durham and De Montfort Universities and, on a much wider scale, in the city of Liverpool. These tests will allow students to travel back home in a travel window from the end of lockdown from the 3rd to the 9th, allowing a 14-day isolation period for positive tests before Christmas.

Credit where it’s due – the scheme will vastly reduce the number of students leaving with coronavirus and avoid the initial plan to make students isolate for 14 days at university before being allowed to leave, which would have had a catastrophic effect on students’ mental health. It’ll also mean that students with vulnerable family members will have increased confidence in being able to return home safely. The testing scheme will, in all likelihood, greatly mitigate the spread of the virus – but mitigation is not prevention.

It cannot be taken as a given that students will return to university in January

There are several assumptions underpinning the travel scheme which don’t hold up. Key among these is that receiving a negative test will guarantee that it is safe to travel and result in no isolating upon arrival. However, the LFTs only catch 76.8% of cases (although this does rise to 95% in cases with a high viral load), meaning that up to 23.2% of students with the virus could take it home – and the presence of a negative test would mean that some would act with less caution and potentially spread the virus.

The travel window taking placein the tier system rather than in the lockdown period also means that, with more businesses open, this spread from false negatives would be greater than it potentially could have been. This also assumes that everyone will receive an LFT – some will forego it, and some may not be able to access it due to supply issues.

There’s also the assumption that this helps students avoid disruption; far from it. The travel window ending before the majority of universities have finished term means that face-to-face teaching and labs scheduled for the last one or two weeks of term have been moved online or cut off. It also puts most students into a reduced capacity public transport network in a very short span of time, which has the potential to result in a chaotic mess of unbookable trains and cancelled travel plans.

The government’s assumption that ‘many students would have their own transport or be collected by parents’ is a statement divorced from a reality in which parents still have to work and the majority of us, surprisingly, don’t own a car.

There’s also another issue lurking under the surface which the government’s myopic fixation on Christmas has blinded them to: January. It cannot be taken as a given that students will be allowed to return to university in January; we thought we’d all be back here in May and look how that turned out. With the lockdown being lowered to a tier system and restrictions being severely relaxed for five days over Christmas in a move that quite blatantly puts popularity with voters over the need to control the virus, it is possible that the infection rate in January will exceed the most recent peak.

The government pays no attention to detail with students

In this scenario, the country would be facing the mass movement of students once again, but this time with much less ability to test them before that movement. If this plays out and the government decides it’s unsafe to let us move again, then students will be trapped in an inferior learning environment, cut off from university resources, and stuck renting accommodation we have no way of using.

The picture that builds up from all of this is that the government clearly pays no attention to detail with students. The travel scheme isn’t a bad one, but it isn’t a fully thought-out one either. While it will work for the majority, those that slip through the cracks and their families who may end up unintentionally exposed to coronavirus will have been severely let down, and this group of people will mainly be composed of those who have suffered enough this year – those with vulnerable family members, with no money to spend on last-minute train tickets, and without a stable environment to study in if it all goes pear-shaped.

With some more preparation, resources and foresight, these issues could be avoided; the failure to do so or provide any assurances means the government has once again fallen short.

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