The largest trade union in higher education has criticised the decision by ministers to remove remaining Covid restrictions in England from 19 July and wants students fully vaccinated as quickly as possible.
The University and College Union – which has opposed in-person teaching and reopening campuses – said ministers had “learned nothing” and were “set to make the same mistakes” as last year.
While universities in England are allowed to restart in-person teaching for all students, other Covid rules – like social distancing, masks indoors and self-isolation after exposure to an infected person – all remain in place. Labour shadow education secretary Kate Green today asked education secretary Gavin Williamson “why masks were required… in March and April, but are not required now when case numbers are much higher?”
From 19 July, those who have received two doses of a vaccine will not need to self-isolate if they are in contact with someone with the virus. Second vaccines should be offered to all students “as quickly as possible”, said UCU general secretary Jo Grady. By the end of June, the NHS estimated that half of the under-30s had received one dose of a vaccine.
“Protective measures will remain in place for the autumn term in all education settings, including practising good hygiene, ventilation, and regular testing until the end of September to strike a balance between relaxing restrictions and minimising further disruption,” Mr Williamson today (Tuesday 6 July) told parliament.
The latest government advice states: “HE providers should continue to make efforts to reduce the risk of transmission where possible. They should not put in place measures which limit the teaching and learning outcome for students, or significantly limit the wider activities offered by the HE provider.”
“Testing will continue through the summer break where settings remain open,” government guidelines say, and students should take tests before leaving campus for the summer holidays. Students and staff should test themselves twice a week, either using home test kits or at an on-site facility, and students returning to campus from home should take two lateral flow device tests three to four days apart on arrival.
Universities may still be called upon to support track and trace should a positive case be traced to a campus and should keep records of students’ households. In the event of an outbreak, a director of public health may advise a university to encourage people to wear face coverings. Guidance on face coverings is not binding, however, and universities should not deny a student education “on the grounds of whether they are, or are not, wearing a face-covering”, according to the latest guidelines.
The HE sector should improve ventilation indoors where possible, for example, by opening windows, but “balance the need for increased ventilation while maintaining a comfortable temperature”, the advice adds.
Universities should encourage students and staff to take both coronavirus vaccines, participate in the testing programme and “ensure the rationale for behaviours and protective measures is understood”, official guidance states. International students will be able to have a vaccination for free if registered with a GP.
The government said it would be led by data not dates, but it is scrapping health and safety measures in education while cases are climbing rapidly
– Dr Jo Grady, University and College Union
Grady said the government was “shifting responsibility for managing a national health crisis onto employers, an approach that proved catastrophic last time”. The union said universities “act as Covid incubators, and help the virus spread rapidly” and accused the government of showing “a continued reckless disregard for health and safety”.
“The government said it would be led by data not dates, but it is scrapping health and safety measures in education while cases are climbing rapidly,” she added.
Figures compiled for the Department for Education (DfE) show 76,546 confirmed positive Covid cases recorded in the higher education sector between 1 August 2020 and 7 April 2021 – 67,571 were students and 8,975 staff.
The DfE accepts these figures are not complete – representing only those cases confirmed by a positive result to a Covid test and reported to a university. Before December 2020, mass testing was not available to HE students. Not every HE provider in the UK submitted figures to the report, so they are not representative of the whole sector, and total infections are likely to be higher.
Two studies published by the University of Cambridge demonstrate the efficacy of Covid safety and testing procedures implemented at the university – and show it is “possible to keep universities and colleges open safely during the pandemic”.
A separate study by Cambridge University found little evidence suggests Cambridge students transmitted coronavirus to members of the local public in October and November last year.