Mass coronavirus testing for HE students in England under consideration

A letter sent to vice-chancellors in England sets out the government plan for the Christmas holidays

Students in England are to be tested for Covid-19 before they travel home for Christmas, according to a letter from the universities minister to vice-chancellors.

The BBC and The Telegraph have seen the letter; University Business has contacted the Departments for Education (DfE) for comment.

The minister proposed to university leaders a week of mass testing to coincide with the end of lockdown from 30 November to 6 December. 

The Telegraph reported that the government’s strategy requires “large scale asymptomatic testing programmes at universities”.

This period would create a window for students to leave their term-time address and return to their families for the Christmas holidays. Students who test positive would self-isolate at their term time address in the remaining weeks of teaching terms, before being dispatched to their families. An estimated 1.2 million students are currently living away from their families at, or near, their higher education provider.

The strategy requires rapid tests that yield results within hours. The test would be self-administered and would not need a laboratory to process the results. The Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) assured vice-chancellors it could offer tests capable of delivering results within 20 to 30 minutes.

A Universities UK spokesperson said: “We welcome the government’s ambition to enhance testing capacity for university students and staff, and are pleased that universities have helped shape their plans by sharing experience from their own testing regimes and participating in pilots. A more effective test, track and trace system in higher education will help limit transmission, assist in rapid response to outbreaks and support universities to continue offering face-to-face learning and support for student welfare in a low risk and physically-distanced way.

“For a major roll out of asymptomatic testing to be successful, universities now need clear assurance of the effectiveness of the tests as well as further details from the government on specific responsibilities under the proposed scheme including the governance, indemnity, resourcing and costs recovery.”

Some of our concerns include whether all universities will be able to take part, how the tests will be administered, who will cover the costs, what the plan is for students who commute to campus daily from their family home, and how students who aren’t able to be tested will travel home safely
Dr Jo Grady, University and College Union

University leaders have been told that they need to register their interest in the scheme and place their order for testing kits “by the end of this week”. Vice-chancellors would have until the end of the month to prepare test sites and get them ready for operation, the Telegraph reported.

University and College Union general secretary Jo Grady said her union had questions over the efficacy of the government’s plan. She said it was not clear whether all universities would take part, who would pay and how the tests would be administered. Ms Grady also questioned whether students who live at home and commute to campus daily would be included.

De Montfort and Durham universities are now running national pilot projects for rapid Covid testing on behalf of the DHSC – and the universities of East Anglia, UCL and Exeter have all operated testing services for staff and students since the commencement of the new term.

A freedom of information request revealed that Nottingham Trent was forecast to spend £2m on Covid testing since September 2020, the most of any English HE provider, with Cardiff, Oxford and Cambridge all predicted to spend more than £1m on a testing service.

Scotland favours a staggered end to the Michaelmas semester.

Read more: NUS and UCU denounce DfE advice on in-person teaching

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