The Department for Education (DfE) has been “simply irresponsible” in sending students home to their families later this week without a plan for how to facilitate their safe return to campuses in the new year, according to the shadow universities minister.
Emma Hardy called for universities to stagger the return of students to campuses in January 2021 – those on placements and those for whom face-to-face teaching is essential should return as soon as possible, Ms Hardy said, with others to return in stages later in the term.
Policymakers fear students will travel from areas with high transmission rates to towns and cities with comparatively fewer Covid-19 cases, sparking a possible third wave of infections in January and February.
Emma Hardy wrote to the minister responsible for universities, Michelle Donelan, and accused her of “passing the buck to universities” instead of devising a strategy.
“Given the significant concerns that have already been expressed about the impact of the Christmas period on the R number, your department’s failure to set out a plan for the return of university students in January is simply irresponsible,” Ms Hardy wrote.
Labour said the “failing” test, track and trace system led to a spike in coronavirus infections when terms commenced in September – and warned the government risked repeating the same mistake in January.
“The government was late in realising there was a crisis in September, and it is deeply concerning that your department does not appear to have learned from this experience,” Ms Hardy wrote. “We believe that staggering the return of students to campuses will significantly reduce the risk of a spike in infection rates while ensuring that all students who need face to face teaching will be able to get it safely.”
Global press coverage of the “poor handling of the pandemic” risked discouraging international students from returning to England in January, Ms Hardy noted, adding: “It is deeply concerning that the government’s incompetence is putting the reputation of our world-leading universities at risk.” She asked the universities minister to give international students “assurances” on their safety and clarify if incoming overseas travellers will be required to self-isolate for 14 days.
In response to Ms Hardy’s letter, a DfE spokesperson said: “We will provide further guidance in due course on the spring term, which will look to use mass testing on offer and consider the latest scientific advice.”