SAGE: ‘significant’ Covid risk posed by return to campus

The government’s scientific advisors have warned that a track and trace program is needed to make the autumn term safe

There is a “significant risk” that students returning to university will increase coronavirus transmission rates, the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) has warned. 

The committee published a 32-page document outlining how government and higher education institutions should manage campuses once term starts in a few weeks time.

“It is highly likely that there will be significant outbreaks associated with HE, and asymptomatic transmission may make these harder to detect. Outbreak response requires both local plans and coordinated national oversight and decision-making,” the report warned.

A safe return to campus would only be possible if government launched a “clear strategy” for testing and tracing suspected cases, the experts continued.

“Evidence suggests there are a higher proportion of asymptomatic cases among younger age groups, meaning that cases and outbreaks are likely to be harder to detect among student populations,” SAGE explained.

Epidemic modelling suggests there is a “substantial” risk infection rates will amplify towards the end of term, which will pose a risk to families and local communities when students return for the the Christmas and New Year period.

The SAGE report identified student halls and social environments as high-risk and recommended universities segment students by year groups to “enable more targeted quarantines”. It also recommended that face coverings are worn in all communal spaces.

“Face coverings are an important mitigation against droplet and aerosol transmission in shared indoor spaces especially where social distancing is difficult to maintain, or ventilation is poor,” the scientists explained.

In order to ensure students comply with new restrictions, universities should enforce rules with consistent messaging and explain the “principles that underlie these rules”. 

UCU general secretary Jo Grady described the report as “sobering”.

“[The report] exposes how wrong it was to try and pretend this would be business as usual. The worry now is how ill-prepared the government and universities appear to be.

“We welcome the recommendations for better testing and tracing, and for universities to work with staff and students on guidance. This report adds further weight to our call that online teaching must be universities’ default position. What we really need now is a serious response from universities and government. The health of university staff, students and the wider community is too important to gamble with, this is not business as usual.”

Earlier this week, the University of St Andrews told students just 10% of teaching will be conducted in-person because of coronavirus restrictions. St Andrews principal Prof Sally Mapstone said the decision was “a prudent and pragmatic response” to the pandemic “in the current absence of a national asymptomatic testing regime”.

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