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Rapid testing 'could be deployed in all schools by September 2021'

Antigen testing is not yet recommended as a requirement to enter restaurants or other leisure activities.

Image: Shutterstock/Cryptographer

THE GOVERNMENT’S EXPERT group on rapid testing has recommended that the self-administered Covid-19 tests should be rolled out across a number of settings, with feasibility studies carried out on whether they could play a role in schools.  

The report says that antigen tests “should complement” existing HSE PCR testing programmes and that there is “growing evidence” for asymptomatic antigen testing due the increased commercial availability of the tests. 

The group concludes that individual government departments as well as public bodies should carry out feasibility studies on whether they have a role to play. 

The expert group is seeking that the HSE institute immediate programmes in a number of areas including care homes, outbreak settings, among casual healthcare workers and in State-run institutions such as prisons and Direct Provision centres. 

Rapid testing is already underway in healthcare settings and there is a number of pilot programmes in meat-processing plants. 

The report says that individual departments should take the lead in their specific areas.

In terms of schools, the group wants feasibility studies to involve teachers, students and parents.

The testing would start with training in schools that could then progress to self-testing at home “for the child and the entire household”.

The group suggests that if the studies were successful widespread rapid testing “could be in all schools by September 2021″.

It adds that rapid testing “could be deployed” before the Leaving Cert or Junior Cert.

Speaking this afternoon, Expert Group member Professor Mary Horgan of the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland said that any school studies this year are likely to be “very, very small” as it is now 1 April and there is not much time left in this school year. 

In terms of a timeline for the school studies, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said this afternoon that it will be a collaborative process involving education partners but that he doesn’t rule out these studies happening this school year.

He said it would first be appropriate to “see what sort of appetite there is across schools.”

“Anything that is done, anything that is proposed for the education sector will be done in full consultation with the education partners. The report recommends piloting in education, I fully support that. However, it’s very important as that it’s done in consultation between the education partners,” he said.

Minister Foley and I obviously have already spoken and need to sit down and tease out the way to do it with education. What Minister Foley will do is in consultation with the education partners, so let’s see what sort of appetite there is for the implementation across various schools.

The report notes that the deployment of antigen testing should be particularly focused on young people as “they will be the last to be vaccinated” and are “more likely” to be the early drivers of any new wave of Covid-19. 

Hospitality 

The Expert Group also notes that there is space for antigen testing in other settings, referencing that they could play a role for “a more widespread safe return to both outdoor and indoor sport”. 

It said that the GAA, IRFU, FAI and gyms should also establish pilot rapid testing programmes, first of participants and then to be followed by spectators.

It also says that pilot programmes could be put in place for lecture halls “when lower community infection rates and higher vaccination levels are achieved”.

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This is turn “would be a good pilot for their potential use at point of entry for other societal activities related to indoor gatherings (eg theatres, cinemas, restaurants, sporting events, weddings etc.)”, the report states. 

The Export Group was chaired by Professor Mark Ferguson, Director General of Science Foundation Ireland and Chief Scientific Adviser to the government. 

Ferguson said he would not for the moment be saying that antigen testing would be used as a way of determining who can enter a restaurant or other hospitality space. 

“This is an evolving space, I would not be recommending that at the present time, but who knows what it’s going to be like in a month or two,” he said

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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