Students in England will be able to travel home to spend Christmas with their families once the national lockdown ends on 2 December, the universities minister has announced – but the government has stopped short of promising students Covid-19 tests before the end of term.
It was reported yesterday that mass testing was under consideration by the government to mitigate concerns the return of students to their homes could trigger a rise in coronavirus transmission rates.
Although universities have been promised access to national testing facilities if required, the government have stopped short of offering a blanket assurance.
The health secretary Matt Hancock yesterday announced that mass testing will be rolled out to 67 more areas in England. Areas including Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and parts of the West Midlands will join Liverpool in receiving rapid ‘lateral flow’ tests.
The DfE said this morning that universities can apply to be included in this mass testing programme. Crucially, students are not guaranteed tests and will not be obliged to wait for a negative test result before travelling home.
“Tests will be offered to as many students as possible before they travel home for Christmas, with universities in areas of high prevalence prioritised. This will provide further reassurance that where students test negative, they can return home safely and minimise the risk of passing coronavirus on to their loved ones,” the statement explained. Students that test positive will be required to self-isolate for two weeks at their term-time address, before travelling home for the holiday period.
Speaking to the Today programme on Radio 4 this morning, universities minister Michelle Donelan described the ‘lateral flow’ tests as “complementary” to the government plan to return students to their homes.
With universities being asked to end in-person learning by 9 December, some students will now miss out on timetabled placements, practical classes and other in-person teaching near the end of term
– Universities UK
Universities UK, which represents the collective voice of 140 universities, acknowledged the announcement but warned the decision would have ramifications for the sector.
“University students and staff will appreciate confirmation of the government’s end-of-term plans for English universities, given the prolonged uncertainty they have faced this year.
“With universities being asked to end in-person learning by 9 December, some students will now miss out on timetabled placements, practical classes and other in-person teaching near the end of term. Universities will need to work with students and government to manage the challenges this creates.
“The government must now urgently turn its attention to working with the sector on plans to ensure students can safely resume their studies in person in January, supported by enhanced testing capability.”
Students will be able to travel home between 3 to 9 December in what ministers have deemed a ‘student travel window’. Departure dates will be staggered regionally, so that students in nearby universities do not flood local public transport networks on the same day. Exiting promptly after completing the mandatory four-week period of lockdown reduces “the risk of transmission to family and friends at home”, the DfE said.
Universities should move learning online by 9 December so students can continue their education while also having the option to return home to study from there.
The measures announced today will help minimise that risk and help students get home to their families as safely as possible for Christmas. It is crucial that students follow the guidance in order to protect their families and the communities they return to
– Dr Jenny Harries, deputy chief medical officer
Ms Donelan said: “We know this Christmas will feel different and following this incredibly difficult year we are delivering on our commitment to get students back to their loved ones as safely as possible for the holidays.
“We have worked really hard to find a way to do this for students, while limiting the risk of transmission. Now it is vital they follow these measures to protect their families and communities, and for universities to make sure students have all the wellbeing support they need, especially those who stay on campus over the break.”
Ms Donelan said she was working with ministers in Stormont, Holyrood and Cardiff to ensure that students from England could return to families in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. English students at universities in the devolved regions will be expected to follow regional travel plans – but would be expected to complete at least a 14-day period of “restricted contact” on their return if they had not spent the previous four weeks in lockdown.
Students in England will be expected to avoid peak travel times on public transport and limit car sharing where possible when travelling home.
Labour shadow universities minister Emma Hardy said the government plan came “after weeks of unnecessary delay”. Ms Hardy said ministers “must work with universities and local government to ensure that rapid and accurate testing is available for all students who need it”.
The University and College Union (UCU) today general secretary Jo Grady said the government plan was “riddled with holes” and called for distance learning next term.
Said Dr Grady: “Allowing just a week for around one million students to travel across the country leaves little room for error. If the government instead told universities to move online now it would provide much more time to stagger the movement of students and better protect the health of staff, students and their wider communities.
“The plans for mass testing fall far short of universal coverage, with some universities set to receive no tests – and they come with immense practical challenges to overcome in a very short window. The government has created a situation where students and staff are still going onto campus for in-person teaching during a lockdown. Any student who is not able to be tested will either have to spend 14 days in isolation after that lockdown ends, alone in student accommodation, or risk spreading the virus.
“It is unclear what extra support will be given to help potentially thousands of students who may need to isolate at the same time. £12m for mental health support is not sufficient when thousands of students are already protesting the lack of provision.”
Deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries said: “The mass movement of students across the country at the end of term presents a really significant challenge within the COVID-19 response. The measures announced today will help minimise that risk and help students get home to their families as safely as possible for Christmas. It is crucial that students follow the guidance in order to protect their families and the communities they return to.”