Mass Covid-19 testing of students returns just 13 positives after 44,000 tests

Just 13 cases of Covid-19 were identified among 44,000 tests carried out in the first two weeks of Scotland’s three-week testing programme to allow students to go home for Christmas.
Students Fiona Waddell and Lily Wallace demonstrate the test at St Andrews University.Students Fiona Waddell and Lily Wallace demonstrate the test at St Andrews University.
Students Fiona Waddell and Lily Wallace demonstrate the test at St Andrews University.

Between November 30 and December 12, 43,925 lateral flow tests were carried out, with 79 returning positive.

The students who tested positive on a lateral flow test were asked to take a PCR test, as these are known to be more accurate.

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Of the 35 PCR tests which have so far been analysed, 13 have been positive. Students whose PCR tests have not yet been analysed have been asked to self-isolate.

So far the positivity rate is 0.03 per cent, compared to the Scotland average of 4.4 per cent as of December 17.

Asked about the testing programme at the coronavirus daily briefing on Friday, National Clinical Director Jason Leitch said negative results are helpful as well as positive ones.

"We don't only learn from positives, we also learn from the negatives, and I think it is very welcome that the student population have embraced this, and many of them now have more reassurance than they had when they go home and to be safe,” he said.

"It is not completely foolproof but it is another layer of protection for the student body and their loved ones."

Questions have previously been raised over the accuracy of lateral flow tests, which return a much quicker result than PCR tests.

A document released by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) after the lateral flow pilot in Liverpool showed the tests missed 51 per cent of all cases.

Asked about the choice of test when the student programme began on November 30, National Clinical Director Jason Leitch said: “No test is 100 per cent successful. Lateral flow is new technology, and it allows us to add that in to our existing PCR technology. It is not as sensitive, so it does not find as many positives as the PCR test does.”

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He said two actions were being taken to combat the limitations of the test: asking students to take it twice, and checking positive results with a PCR test.

The programme continued in many universities until December 18, with information about tests carried out in the third week yet to be released.

Prior to the rollout, Higher Education Minister Richard Lochhead said he expected 80,000 students in Scotland to travel home over the Christmas period.

As students were asked to take two tests before travelling home, this would require 160,000 tests.

Asked if she considered the programme a success despite less than a quarter of that figure having been carried out in the first two weeks, health secretary Jeane Freeman said: “I think it has worked, of course it is voluntary as is all asymptomatic testing, we can't make people do this.”

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She said staff had worked hard to encourage students to take up the offer of testing.

"Clearly it is a really important exercise and I know that our colleagues in the testing side of the Scottish Government and the NHS and our colleagues in universities across the country have worked really really hard not only to make that testing available but to encourage students to take it up,” she said.

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