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Nottingham starts tests after lack of response from government

Director behind asymptomatic testing scheme explains frustrations with nationwide system

An asymptomatic Covid-19 testing system at the University of Nottingham is going ahead despite failing to win support from the government.

Speaking to Research Professional News, University of Nottingham director of global and political affairs Alex Favier said the university had been trying to talk to ministers about the testing system.

“We haven’t been able to talk to government about how this fits into the national system, although not for the want of trying. The message that has been passed down from national agencies has pretty much been, ‘universities shouldn’t be doing asymptomatic testing, you shouldn’t really be doing your own testing, and that Pillar Two will be all you need,” he said.

Pillar Two testing is a swab test for Covid-19 available for the general public. There have been shortages of the tests, leading ministers to ask asymptomatic people not to use the testing system.

In the House of Commons on 17 September, health secretary Matt Hancock said he would “look into” requests for more swab tests from the University of Nottingham and other universities.

Although several universities including the University of Exeter and the University of East Anglia are carrying out their own Covid-19 testing systems for students and staff, recently updated government guidance for universities said that institutions “should ensure they are fully aware of the implications, both clinical and organisational, of introducing testing programmes and of the potential limitations of any tests or test services they use”.

”For our model, we simply don’t agree with the argument that asymptomatic testing done in-house by universities will lead to the deployment of more Pillar Two resources on staff and students,” Favier said. “If we use our targeted, high-frequency mass testing to quickly detect and break the chains of asymptomatic transmission with university communities—then we think this will nip outbreaks in the bud before they get to the stage where local public health need to use lots of national testing to bring things under control.”  

Favier said asymptomatic testing on campus “will essentially break that transmission train by using our own resources to identify asymptomatic positive cases”.

“Within universities, our worry is that you will end up in a few weeks with lots of hidden spread and then you will have to deploy more Pillar Two resources to get rid of that. In the meantime what does that mean for universities? What does that mean for students?” he said.

“What we’re doing is to try to cover some of the gaps that the national strategy has left. It’s not a revolutionary concept—we’re just trying to be smart about it with the resources that we have in play.”

He explained that asymptomatic testing is important to identify on-campus cases. “From what we saw in America, asymptomatic spread and transmission within student communities is something that can go very, very quickly from a couple of cases to more than that. While the UK has lower community transmission than the US, we don’t want to be complacent about this”

Favier said he was “in discussions” with other universities in Nottingham about rolling out the asymptomatic testing service to them. The University of Nottingham is funding the system and although Favier could not say how much the service cost he said it was “a substantial amount”.

The asymptomatic testing scheme follows two pilot schemes at the University of Nottingham over the past six months. The service has been developed with Sherwood Forest Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, the NIHR Nottingham Biomedical Research Centre and NHS Test and Trace.

A spokesperson from the Department for Education told Research Professional News, “Universities have been working hard to safely open campuses and buildings this autumn, and the Government has updated its guidance to assist the sector with these plans including on track and trace procedures.

“Testing capacity is the highest it has ever been, but we are seeing a significant demand for tests. It is vital that staff and students only get a test if they develop coronavirus symptoms.

“Universities should ensure that all staff and students are aware of all their options to access a test if required. They should ensure students who need to self-isolate are safe and well looked after, and work with their local Public Health England protection team in response to positive cases.”

Nottingham’s testing programme comes as Sally Mapstone, vice-chancellor of the University of St Andrews, has written to all students asking them to observe a voluntary lockdown this weekend. In a letter issued today, Mapstone said, "It is now very clear that rates of Covid infection are surging again in various parts of this country, and it is very likely that we are very close to a form of further national lockdown."

She asked that from 7pm this evening all students remain in their "rooms as much as possible, not to party, not to go to bars or restaurants, and to avoid mixing with any groups outside your own households".

She added that "I must stress that this is pre-emptive and proactive action. There is no evidence that the virus is surging in our community. Rather it is because as a country we are now in a very fast-moving phase where early intervention is key, and hours make a difference."