Lateral flow Covid tests picked up just 3pc of cases in Birmingham students before Christmas

Lateral flow Covid tests picked up just three per cent of positive cases in Birmingham students before they returned home for the Christmas holidays, scientists have warned as they called for an immediate pause to the rollout.

This week the Government announced that mass community testing would start using lateral flow devices which give instant results, similar to how pregnancy tests work.

The Government hopes mass testing will help pick up the third of people who are infected with coronavirus but never show symptoms, and said it had already identified nearly 15,000 cases which would ordinarily have been missed.

But writing in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) experts said the programme could cause serious harm because it missed huge numbers of cases.

Professor Jon Deeks of Birmingham University and Dr Mike Gill, former regional director of public health, south east England, warned the public was being misled about their accuracy and called for an urgent pause.

“False reassurance is a serious problem,” said Prof Deeks. “The Government is falsely telling us this test works, is as good as polymerase chain reaction (PCR), and makes people safe. 

“There is no evidence that benefits of mass screening outweigh the harms of false reassurance.”

Recent figures show that in the Liverpool pilot study of lateral flow testing, some 60 per cent of infected symptomless people went undetected including 33 per cent of those with high viral loads.

And among students in Birmingham, only three per cent of those who would have tested positive on the PCR test were detected.

The Government has encouraged the use of negative tests to enable visiting relatives in care homes, returning to work or staying in school.

But the experts say the rollout should be paused until clearer messaging about the risk of negative results can be developed.

“Finally, since testing makes no difference unless followed by appropriate action, the UK needs a national scheme to enable self-isolation of cases and contacts through support, including financial and accommodation for those in need,” they conclude.

Commenting on the rollout, Angela Raffle, consultant in public health and honorary senior lecturer at Bristol Medical School, said: “The news of further rollout of lateral flow testing is very worrying. 

“Any benefit from finding symptomless cases will be outweighed by the many more infectious cases that are missed by these tests. Already outbreaks are known to have occurred because people have been falsely reassured by a negative lateral flow result, leading them to attend work whilst having symptoms.”

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