Scotland’s teenagers and most teachers are refusing pleas to undergo regular Covid testing, raising fears that hidden outbreaks in schools may be fuelling a virus surge.
Earlier this year SNP ministers announced a mass-testing programme across the country’s secondary schools, with staff and students to be "strongly encouraged" to take twice weekly home tests in an effort to hunt down cases.
However, new figures show that in the week to May 30, fewer than one in every 20 pupils in S3 to S6 took part in the programme, with an uptake rate of just 4.9 per cent. For younger secondary pupils, uptake was just 6.3 per cent.
Meanwhile, more than two thirds of school workers including teachers also shunned the testing scheme, which is designed to detect cases in younger people who are far less likely to develop symptoms.
Despite being in the grip of an outbreak which meant it was only allowed to enter Level 2 at the weekend, rates of asymptomatic testing in schools run by the SNP administration in Glasgow are the lowest in the country.
Just 16.1 per cent of school staff in Glasgow took tests over the week, with only Orkney, which is effectively free of Covid, recording a lower result. Uptake was just 1.8 per cent among S4 to S6 pupils in the city – the lowest in Scotland – and 2.7 per cent among S1-S3.
Education leaders alarmed over low uptake
Education bosses have been alarmed at the low uptake levels, and are set to launch a new drive aimed at persuading young people to get tested.
Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, said that "incentives" could be introduced to persuade young people to take part in the scheme.
"Regular asymptomatic testing is particularly useful in settings like schools where infections affect not just the person testing positive but also others who have to self-isolate, disrupting education and work," she said.
"But one of the challenges is the repetitive nature. People might engage initially and then stop testing.
"At the current time when we do once again have rising numbers of cases particularly among younger adults and school aged pupils, we need to use asymptomatic testing and ensure it is taken up.
"To improve uptake clear and consistent messaging is needed, robust systems for recording, and even some form of incentives, appropriate to the setting and age group could be considered."
The asymptomatic testing scheme was initially targeted at older secondary pupils, and was put in place for reopening of schools in February. It was expanded to include all high school pupils after Easter.
Seventy per cent of S4-S6 pupils have never taken a test
However, Public Health Scotland data shows that since the scheme was set up, 70 per cent of S4-S6 pupils have never taken a single test. Eight in ten younger secondary pupils have never taken part, since testing was expanded in late April.
In Glasgow, 90 per cent of younger secondary pupils, and 80 per cent of their older peers, have not taken a single test according to the data.
More than a third of school staff across Scotland – 35.7 per cent – are recorded as having never taken a single test.
Pupils and staff are given lateral flow tests, which give rapid results, which they are asked to use at home. Those with positive results are told to visit a testing centre, where a more accurate PCR test is given.
Hundreds of Covid cases detected through school tests
Despite the low uptake, 713 confirmed cases of Covid-19 have been detected through the school and nursery tests.
Scottish Government officials believe the scheme may be more popular than the data suggests, as participants may not always record a negative test result online, as they are requested to. However, this would not explain the wide variation in uptake in different parts of the country.
In Moray, almost half of teachers took part in the week to May 30, along with 18.6 per cent of younger secondary pupils and 12.4 per cent of older pupils, the highest rates in Scotland.
Oliver Mundell, education spokesman for the Scottish Tories, said the figures were "concerning" and that SNP ministers must do more to encourage "far higher" uptake.
"The figures in Glasgow are particularly alarming," he said. "It doesn’t make sense that uptake levels in Glasgow are so low when it has some of the highest levels of Covid in Scotland.
"The example of Moray shows what is possible. Their rapid reaction to Covid outbreaks has got the virus under control. We need the SNP to roll out a similarly rapid response in Glasgow but these figures indicate that isn’t happening."
Surge in cases driven by young people
Recent data has shown that a recent surge in cases has been driven largely by young people, with older groups protected by vaccinations. There were 775 new cases reported in Scotland yesterday, with Nicola Sturgeon last week suggesting that the country was off course to move to Level 0 later this month.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: "We know that up-take figures are likely to be an underestimate as stakeholder and survey feedback indicated some people may take a test and fail to record the result, particularly if it’s negative.
"We are working with local authorities to understand potential barriers to uptake and recording of testing and to encourage more school staff and pupils to take part.
"We also continue to work with YoungScot to understand the views of young people and to encourage them to participate in the programme."