200 secondary schools and colleges have volunteered to take part in a trial of the use of lateral flow tests as an alternative to the self isolation of close contacts.
The NEU's attitude is that if there were a safe way of not having to send children to isolation that would be a very good thing.
However, we did have serious concerns in December when the DfE proposed this use of LFTS without clinical trials in school settings.
So, a proper clinical trial is, in principle, very welcome.
However, some members have raised concerns about the issue of consent and safety and how they relate to the ethics of the trial.
On Thursday, last week we took those concerns to Bernadette Young and Timothy Peto - the lead scientists on the trial at Oxford university.
We thought it was a very useful meeting - and we are very grateful to Bernadette and Timothy for taking the time to talk to us.
These are things we heard:
- This trial won’t finish until later this summer and so there is no prospect of a wider implementation until September (and by then it maybe that secondary children are being vaccinated)
- The 200 schools have been randomly allocated to two arms of the trial - one with LFTs as an alternative to isolation, one with self isolation - but both with some extra testing. One hypothesis is that if people are allowed to do daily testing with LFTs as an alternative to isolation then they will be more willing to take part in the regular weekly LFTs - making schools safer overall.
- The scientists are “blind” to which arm of the trial the schools are in - but at the end will be able to see if there is a noticeable difference in infections in the two arms. The 200 schools is thought to be big enough to give a trustworthy result even with cases currently being quite low.
- On the question of safety and the trial : Another independent group of scientists are looking at the data as it arrives and they are not “blind”. They will check to see if the daily testing arm gets significantly more cases - and if so the trial would be abandoned. We were told that in such safety check systems a variation of three standard deviations would normally be enough to stop the trial.
- On the question of consent and ethics: Consent is sought from individuals who would otherwise self isolate but not from the whole of the school community. There are practical difficulties with seeking consent from the the whole school community individually. But an independent ethics committee has agreed to the trial design, including the question of how consent is obtained and from whom and with the safety aspects referred to above.
We also discussed the fact that there is clearly there some corporate consent in that schools have agreed to take part. We said that we believed that schools should have consulted staff before taking part - and that we knew many schools had. If a group of staff was collectively unhappy we would support them in making that case to the school management.
We also said we had concerns raised from some individual members who believe themselves to be at higher risk. We’ve said in these cases we believe those individuals could be supported in working from home.
These two more industrial relations matters are clearly outside scope for the scientists - though it was clear that some individuals working from home wouldn’t make the trial invalid.
We were pleased that both Bernadette and Timothy said they would be very willing to meet NEU members from the schools involved to discuss the trial and concerns if members wished that.
We thought this was a good meeting - and said we would report to members.