Universities pose greater Covid risk than colleges or schools, says Donelan

Universities are different from schools and FE colleges because they tend to offer a residential campus experience, the universities minister said

Universities minister Michelle Donelan has said the government was right not to allow all learners to return to HE campuses in England on 12 April because of the risk students travelling and mixing poses to Covid-19 transmission rates.

Ms Donelan told MPs yesterday universities were more likely to increase infections than pubs, shops, gyms, cafes and theme parks as “most of these are outside… plus they don’t involve the formation of new households”.

The minister said that this factor alone meant that universities, where up to 80% of students live in term-time addresses, are different from schools and colleges that typically do not offer a residential campus experience.

“In terms of further education and schools, the difference is that these youngsters do not go and form new households nor do they travel across the country,” she told the House of Commons. “We know that inside risk of transmission increase with the number of people mixing and the length of time they are together, which is why we are being cautious until stage 3. Throughout the pandemic, SAGE have warned of the risk posed of the mass movement of students, especially given that they form new households.”

Donelan said the government had adopted “a cautious approach” following “the arrival of new and highly transmissible variants”.

Much of the hospitality, fitness, retail and entertainment sectors were allowed to reopen in England on 12 April. Cafes and pubs may only welcome patrons in outdoor settings, and gyms and shops must minimise the risk of Covid transmission with mandatory face masks, social distancing and hand sanitising stations.

The minister warned that figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest that 23% of students had not returned to their term-time accommodation: the movement of 500,000 students around the UK, forming new households, could risk outbreaks, she added.

“At the heart of our decision was public health but also student welfare and wellbeing. The last thing that any of us want is for students to have to repeatedly self-isolate as some did last autumn,” the minister declared. Many thousands self-isolated in halls of residence after outbreaks of Covid-19 last October, following the start of the autumn semester.

At the heart of our decision was public health but also student welfare and wellbeing. The last thing that any of us want is for students to have to repeatedly self-isolate as some did last autumn
– Michelle Donelan, universities minister

Donelan doubled down on the risk during an exchange with the Labour shadow minister for youth affairs, Cat Smith. Ministers were “confident that in-person teaching and learning can be delivered in Covid-secure environments,” Donelan said, “but the area of concern has [been] and always will be the movement of students and formation of new households, which does not occur in schools and further education colleges.”

The decision to omit universities from stage 2 of the government lockdown roadmap drew opprobrium from several university leaders and some students. The BBCGuardian, and Telegraph have all reported interviews with students, several of whom have commented that they are entitled to buy a pint at a pub but not attend lectures. Teaching terms will finish for some students before 17 May, the earliest the government will reach stage 3 of the lockdown roadmap. Universities UK estimates around 1 million HE students are still learning online.

The government has allowed students of key vocational disciplines, like healthcare and teaching, and those on practical or practice-based subjects, like laboratory-based sciences and performing arts, to return to HE campuses.

Following the confirmation universities would not be among the sectors allowed to operate more extensively from 12 April, the president of Universities UK Prof Julia Buckingham said: “The list of sectors which are allowed to operate in-person activities in England from 12 April is extensive – all shops, personal care businesses, gyms, spas, zoos, theme parks, public libraries and community centres – and restrictions will be lifted enabling people to travel anywhere in England for a self-catering holiday.

“It, therefore, seems illogical that students are not allowed to return to their self-catering accommodation and resume their studies in Covid-safe university facilities, particularly at this crucial time of the academic year.”

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