Lateral flow Covid tests picked up just three per cent of positive cases in Birmingham students before they returned home for the Christmas holidays, scientists warned as they called for an immediate pause to the rollout.
The Government hopes mass testing will help pick up the third of people who are infected with Covid but never show symptoms, saying it had already identified nearly 15,000 cases that would ordinarily have been missed.
But writing in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), experts said the programme could cause serious harm because it missed huge numbers of cases.
Professor Jon Deeks, of Birmingham University, and Dr Mike Gill, a former regional director of public health for south-east England, warned that the public was being misled about the accuracy of the tests and called for an urgent pause.
“False reassurance is a serious problem,” said Prof Deeks. “The Government is falsely telling us this test works, is as good as polymerase chain reaction (PCR), and makes people safe. There is no evidence that benefits of mass screening outweigh the harms of false reassurance.”
Recent figures show that in the Liverpool pilot study of lateral flow testing some 60 per cent of infected symptomless people went undetected, including 33 per cent of those with high viral loads. Among students in Birmingham, only three per cent of those who would have tested positive on the PCR test were detected.