Cross-party politicians told mass testing of healthy children is “harmful, invasive and unevidenced”

The Pandemic Response and Recovery All-Party Parliamentary Group of cross-party MPs met this week for its first session of 2022, to hear whether there is a case for the continued mass testing of healthy children by schools and nurseries.

Co-chaired by Conservative MP The Rt Hon Esther McVey and Labour MP Graham Stringer, the Group examined the pros and cons of testing in schools along with the growing concerns about the likely physical and mental health harms caused by constant testing. 

Ms McVey said: “The announcement made by the Prime Minister that face coverings no longer need to be worn in schools from 27 January was very welcome. However, children are still routinely being asked to take tests, even primary school children, which goes against government guidance, regardless of whether they have symptoms. The threat of school closures may have been lifted but hundreds of thousands of children are still missing yet more schooling thanks to constant testing and the requirement for healthy children to isolate. We know children are not drivers of transmission. The evidence presented by our experts found no benefits to mass testing. Instead there is disruption, harm and distress caused and two years on we have no robust randomised control trials for the benefits of mass testing of healthy school children.

“The evidence we have heard is clear. Testing in schools must stop, especially in the absence of any sort of study on the impact it has on our children’s physical and mental health. Evidence sessions such as this one are so important, to allow us to get a full picture before we make a decision and put our case to the Government.”

Co-chair Graham Stringer said: “We cannot continue to force such an invasive procedure and we have heard today of children as young as two being physically restrained by their parents, put in headlocks or vomiting after the tests. As I have said before, the evidence to impose these sorts of measures must be overwhelming and I’m not aware the evidence exists that testing healthy children is beneficial and will help stop the spread of SAR-CoV-2. Not to mention the eye watering sums spent on testing which could have been so much better spent on redressing some of the damage already caused to child mental health. Surely the time has come to stop the mass testing of healthy children?” 

The APPG heard from Dr Angela E Raffle, Honorary Senior Lecturer, University of Bristol Medical School Department of Population Health Sciences, Dr Allyson Pollock, Clinical Professor of Public Health at the University of Newcastle, Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychologist, Dr Zenobia Storah, Professor Ellen Townsend, Professor of Psychology at the University of Nottingham and Mark Ward, a parent who spoke about the traumatic experiences of testing his toddler.

All argued against the mass testing of healthy children in schools, highlighting the insufficient scientific and clinical evidence and that far from being of any public health benefit, mass testing causes significant damage to children. 

Dr Angela E Raffle commented: “SARS-CoV-2 testing of healthy school children needs to stop. The World Health Organisation cautions against mass symptomless testing because of high costs, lack of evidence on impact, and risk of diverting resources from more important activities. There is no sound evidence that testing children leads to reduction in serious cases of COVID-19. The policy decision in England to introduce school testing appears to have been a political decision, to create the impression of safety, rather than investing in staffing and ventilation which would have made an impact. The tests being used have not been properly evaluated as self-tests or for use in children. Children are low transmitters compared with adults. The net effect of the school testing is harmful because of the trauma of repeated testing and the disruption to children's lives through repeated exclusion and isolation. Testing is important when done under medical supervision in order to guide decisions about the best way to treat a child who is ill, but the indiscriminate use of tests in children who are well is unjustified.”

Professor Allyson Pollock added: “So many of the so-called public health measures applied over the last two years have been applied indiscriminately in blanket fashion and in the absence of evidence and sound evaluations. Mass testing healthy school children is one such unevidenced measure which has serious consequences. Mass testing is screening and in the UK the government completely ignored the Wilson and Junger 1968 principles of screening and failed to seek the advice of the UK National Screening committee. Testing healthy children in the absence of good evidence of benefit and harms is highly unethical. Healthy children are being tested and isolated unnecessarily. Children are at extremely low risk of severe disease and many of them will be asymptomatic or only have mild symptoms. Testing has not been shown to prevent transmission. Mass testing healthy children is not only a traumatic experience, it is unethical and an appalling waste of time and money. Testing is something that should only be done if deemed clinically necessary, such as if a child is ill enough to need medical attention under medical supervision.”

Child and Adolescent Senior Clinical Psychologist, Dr Zenobia Storah described mass testing of healthy children as “harmful, invasive and unevidenced” and “nothing short of state sponsored child abuse”.

Professor of Psychology, Ellen Townsend told the MPs and Peers: “It is unclear what mass testing healthy children is achieving from a Public Health perspective. No studies have been carried out to understand if there are any benefits and no evaluation has been done on the psychological impact of testing - this is a grave and unethical oversight. We must recognise that children are at minimal risk to others but the harms caused to children, the disruption of testing protocols in schools and the resulting absences, are completely disproportionate to the proclaimed benefits of indiscriminate mass testing. The president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health was quite correct when she said last year that testing in schools was causing unnecessary chaos.”

Notes to editors

For information about the APPG and its membership visit:

https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm/cmallparty/211229/pandemic-response-and-recovery.htm

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Biographies of people giving evidence

Dr Angela E Raffle BSc (Hons) MB ChB FFPH, Consultant in Public Health and Honorary Senior Lecturer University of Bristol Medical School, Population Health Sciences

After working as a junior doctor in England and overseas, I specialised in Public Health and in 1986 took on responsibility for my local cervical screening programme serving a quarter of a million women. I assisted with the roll out of breast screening in England, was part of the National Coordinating Network for cervical screening, which transformed the service in the UK from a harmful mess into a well-functioning programme, and assisted with the creation in 1996 of the UK National Screening Committee and the National Screening Programmes. I have published on issues of overdiagnosis, evidence, quality assurance, ethics and informed consent.I have worked as a Consultant to the National Screening Programmes since 1996 and am lead author with Sir Muir Gray and Professor Anne Mackie of ‘Screening; Evidence and Practice’ (OUP 2nd Edition 2019) a practical and international guide to understanding and running high quality screening programmes.

Professor Allyson Pollock

Professor Allyson Pollock is clinical professor of public health at Newcastle University and honorary professor at UCL. She was director of Newcastle’s Institute of Health & Society, and has set up and directed research and teaching units at Queen Mary University of London and the University of Edinburgh, establishing some of the UK’s leading undergraduate and postgraduate teaching in global health. Prior to that she was Head of the Public Health Policy Unit at UCL and Director of Research & Development at UCL Hospitals NHS Trust. She trained in medicine in Scotland and became a consultant in public health medicine in 1991. Her research interests include regulatory science, rational medicines use, and access to medicines; health service reorganisation, marketisation and PFI / PPPs; and childhood injuries and the epidemiology of trauma. She is the author of NHS plc and Tackling rugby, co-author of The New NHS: a guide and co-editor of The Palgrave Handbook of Sport, Politics and Harm.

Dr Zenobia Storah

Zenobia studied for her doctorate at University College London, and specialised in working with children and adolescents. She has worked in various CAMHS settings including generic CAMHS, children’s learning disability services and services for ‘Looked After’ and adopted children. In 2018, she left the NHS and now provides private therapy for children and young people, and services to NHS trusts as a private contractor. She works mainly with children with neurodevelopmental conditions (autism, ADHD), and retains a strong interest in attachment and developmental trauma, providing Expert Witness services for the Family Courts.

Professor Ellen Townsend

Ellen Townsend is Professor of Psychology in the School of Psychology at the University of Nottingham where she leads the Self-Harm Research Group. She is a Visiting Professor at the Nottingham Institute of Mental Health. Her research has influenced policy and clinical practice. She is currently co-leading an MRC funded Programme on Adolescent Mental Health and Development in the Digital World.Further comments from the panelDr Zenobia Storah said: “I have been working with young people throughout the last two years and have seen a steep rise in mental health conditions as a result of measures like testing. These obsessive infection control measures are causing worrying levels of highly anxious behaviour. They maintain and amplify the fear messaging, further exacerbated when children are surrounded by adults, their parents or teachers,  also constantly testing. It is utterly extraordinary for a society to treat their young in such an abusive way, to throw decades of understanding about normal child development out of the window without having considered the risk factors. One in six young people now meets the diagnostic criteria for at least one mental health disorder but there is still time to lessen and even reverse the long term psychological impact this is having on our children. Children and adolescents need to be prioritised and mass testing, like face coverings, must be consigned to the policy bin, once and for all. What is required immediately is a return to normality for all children and all school and extra-curricular environments.”

Further comments from the panel

Dr Zenobia Storah said: “I have been working with young people throughout the last two years and have seen a steep rise in mental health conditions as a result of measures like testing. These obsessive infection control measures are causing worrying levels of highly anxious behaviour. They maintain and amplify the fear messaging, further exacerbated when children are surrounded by adults, their parents or teachers,  also constantly testing. It is utterly extraordinary for a society to treat their young in such an abusive way, to throw decades of understanding about normal child development out of the window without having considered the risk factors. One in six young people now meets the diagnostic criteria for at least one mental health disorder but there is still time to lessen and even reverse the long term psychological impact this is having on our children. Children and adolescents need to be prioritised and mass testing, like face coverings, must be consigned to the policy bin, once and for all. What is required immediately is a return to normality for all children and all school and extra-curricular environments.”

View the full minutes for this meeting, held on Monday 31 January 2022.

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