Covid-19 and guidance on returning to campus

As staff and students gear up to return to campuses for the 2021–22 academic year, we still face an unpredictable public health environment. Here Bob Fahy from VWV reviews the key elements of universities’ Covid-19 management as of the beginning of September 2021.

Roadmap Step 4 and Operational Guidance

On 5 July 2021, the government published Step 4 of its roadmap confirming that, from 19 July 2021, it would remove mandatory restrictions and instead provide advisory guidance about managing the virus. For universities, this includes the government’s higher education Covid-19 operational guidance, last updated on 17 August 2021. The summary set out below reflects that guidance.

Health and Safety Assessments and Cleaning

Universities are legally obliged to take reasonable steps to protect workers from risks to their health and safety, including from Covid-19. All universities should have already completed detailed Covid-19 risk assessments, identified control measures to manage that risk, and consulted their employees regarding those measures. The operational guidance emphasises that regular communication is key. Universities should continually check, revise and update their risk assessments, especially when there is new advice and guidance.

Face Masks

Face coverings are no longer advised for students, staff and visitors either in teaching rooms or in communal areas, although the general recommendation still applies to wear masks in enclosed and crowded spaces where people may come into contact with people they don’t normally meet. However, the operational guidance makes clear that universities must prepare contingency plans to deal with any identified positive cases of Covid-19 or outbreaks, which should cover the possibility of temporary advice from a director of public health that face coverings should be worn in communal areas or teaching rooms.

Social Distancing

The government’s review concluded that, while the accepted scientific advice is that social distancing reduces the risk of infection, the measures taken since the start of the pandemic have been economically disruptive. All social distancing rules have therefore been removed, but the government suggests that individuals may make the personal choice to limit the close contact they have with people they do not usually live with.

Testing and Tracing

Until at least the end of September, when a further review will be undertaken, students and staff should test twice each week using lateral flow home test kits or at an on-site testing facility and report the results (positive, negative or void) online to NHS Test and Trace.


Since 16 August 2021, the guidance has been:
● Anyone with one of the three key Covid-19 symptoms (a new continuous cough, a high temperature or loss of taste or smell) or a positive test result should stay at home and self-isolate immediately. If they have symptoms of Covid-19, they should arrange to have a PCR test as soon as possible. This still applies even if they have received one or more doses of the Covid-19 vaccine.
● Subject to the exceptions below, anyone who lives in the same household (which includes students in halls of residence who share cooking facilities, bathrooms or toilets, or living areas) as someone with Covid-19, should stay at home and self-isolate.
● However, individuals are not required to self-isolate if they live in the same household as, or are a close contact of, someone with Covid-19, if they
– are fully vaccinated;
– are aged under 18 years and 6 months;
– have taken part in or are currently part of an approved Covid-19vaccine trial; or
– are not able to get vaccinated for medical reasons.

Instead, they will be contacted by NHS Test and Trace, informed they have been in close contact with a positive case and advised to take a PCR test.

Students may be eligible for a one-off payment of £500 through the NHS Test and Trace Support Payment scheme, if they are required to self-isolate. Universities should take steps to ensure students are safe and well looked after during their self-isolation period.

If employees start to display symptoms at work, they should be sent home to self-isolate and arrange to have a PCR test.


The operational guidance suggests that universities should encourage students to take up the offer of both doses of the vaccine, as soon as they become eligible. It makes no specific mention of employees.

Outside of the changes coming in the care sector in November 2021, there is no statutory basis for employers to require employees to be fully vaccinated before attending the workplace. Public Health England’s guide for employers was published on 12 July 2021, which suggests that all employers should encourage their employees to get vaccinated and should share practical information about how and where workers can get vaccinated locally. Current ACAS guidelines suggests that mandatory vaccination policies are “likely to be unlawful” unless they are applied flexibly so as to reduce discrimination risks. In any event, there seems to be little appetite across the sector to impose vaccination requirements at the moment.

VWV is a leading, national education law firm. Bob Fahy, a partner in the HE Employment team, can be contacted on 07500 686163 or at

To be kept up to date on legal, regulatory and governance issues, please register for VWV’s dedicated HE portal OnStream at

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