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The University of Southampton

Southampton pilot demonstrates effective COVID-19 testing in school and university settings

Published: 13 January 2021
Saliva pot

A DHSC-funded pilot programme in Southampton has shown that regular testing can play a valuable role in controlling COVID-19 transmission in educational settings.

A partnership led by the University of Southampton tested staff and students in four schools in the Southampton area and the University of Southampton itself. Over 16000 people were registered and all groups showed high levels of engagement.

The saliva-based RT-LAMP test using the Optigene platform proved to be easy to use and effective. A total of 66,458 tests were completed and 123 positive tests were found over a six week period between September and October. All positive tests were confirmed by PCR testing and no false positives were recorded. Ninety-five percent of results were reported within 12 hours.

Students, staff and parents valued the testing highly, and school attendance increased to 94%, in contrast with reduced attendance rates at other schools locally and nationally. The programme provides a valuable template for the national expansion of testing in education, supporting schools and universities to retain face to face teaching while managing risks of Covid-19 transmission.

Health Minister Lord Bethell said:

“With around one in three people showing no symptoms, regular testing will play a major role in supporting our schools and universities in the coming months.

“This innovative programme in Southampton provides valuable evidence on designing asymptomatic testing programmes in education. The pilot also shows the effectiveness of LAMP for testing those without symptoms, finding more positive cases and helping break chains of transmission quickly.”

Professor Keith Godfrey, programme lead at the University of Southampton, commented:

“The Southampton pilot programme has established the feasibility, acceptability and effectiveness of saliva testing in school and University settings with an impact on transmission. The approach used in Southampton proved to be very effective, with high levels of engagement.

Professor Dame Sue Hill, Chief Scientific Officer for England commented: “It is extremely helpful to have the ‘real world’ demonstration of how population use of the saliva RT-LAMP test can be implemented in educational settings. It provides an important example of how this test can make a valuable contribution to our overall COVID-19 testing capability.”

Further information can be found in the full report.

More information about the RT-LAMP test and its accuracy is published here .

Further details on the programme

The second phase of the DHSC-funded Southampton COVID-19 Testing Programme conducted saliva testing in educational settings in Southampton between 14 September and 31 October 2020. Staff, pupils and contractors in four local schools (an infant, junior, primary and secondary) and students and selected staff and contractors at the University of Southampton were invited to take part. This programme was led by the University of Southampton working in partnership with Southampton Council, the University of Southampton Hospital and the Southampton City Clinical Commissioning Group.

During the period covered by the programme, the number of people testing positive across Southampton, and in almost all other UK universities, increased exponentially, but no such rise was seen in the University of Southampton population, while continuing some face-to-face teaching. Our regular testing programme was likely to have contributed to this by identifying asymptomatic positive cases and breaking chains of transmission.

2,284 school staff, pupils and contractors were registered for the programme and of these 2,043 (89.5%) in the four schools submitted at least one sample during the testing period. 12,353 University students registered for the programme and of these 77.9% provided at least one sample during Phase 2. There are currently 18,823 students registered at the University of Southampton, but not all of these would have been in Southampton as they were studying online or were on placements. 1,593 staff and contractors registered and 85.1% provided at least one sample.

The OptiGene Direct RT-LAMP (loop-mediated isothermal amplification) saliva test used by this programme was found to have a specificity (the ability to correctly detect those without the virus) of 100%, meaning those who tested positive and were instructed to self-isolate could be confident that their result was correct.

Alongside our programme, a collaboration for NHS Test and Trace across nine NHS trusts and university partners including Southampton found that the sensitivity of the test (the ability to correctly detect those with the virus) was 79%, rising to 94% in samples with high levels of the virus. This means that the test is effective in identifying the cases who are infectious and are most likely to transmit the disease. More information about the test and its accuracy is published at:

The percentage of results that were reported to participants within 24 hours of receipt in the laboratory was 97%, and 95% were reported within 12 hours.

Testing has continued in the four schools and the University, with 66,458 tests completed as of 30 November 2020, including 123 positive tests. All positive tests have been confirmed by E gene PCR and no false positives have been recorded.

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