Student Covid-19 mass-testing programme begins as union raises fears over government plan

Students can from today access ‘lateral flow’ Covid-19 tests, but the University and College Union has labelled the government plan “chaotic”

Universities have today initiated the government Covid-19 mass-testing programme for students, as the sector’s largest union raised “grave concerns” about the plan for students to return to their families this Christmas.

Today (30 November) marks the commencement of the 10-day testing window for students in higher education; whether symptomatic or not, the government wants as many students as possible tested before travelling home to relatives for the festive period during the ‘student travel window’ between 3 and 9 December. Teaching must conclude or transfer to online-only delivery by 9 December to allow approximately 1.5 million students to leave their term-time address.

Despite announcing that testing would run until 6 December, universities minister Michelle Donelan extended the student testing period until 9 December in guidance published on 24 November.

Government advice states it “will target testing based on a range of factors including local prevalence rates, whether testing is available already and the percentage of high-risk students in each institution”. Testing will remain voluntary, but students at participating universities are encouraged to take several tests three days apart before leaving – and to do so preferably within 24 hours of receiving their second negative test result. Students who test positive will be required to self-isolate at their term-time address for 10 days.

The University and College Union (UCU) disparaged the ‘travel window’, describing the tightly-choreographed logistics as “chaotic”. It also shared concerns, published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), about the efficacy of the lateral flow tests, on which the mass-testing programme depends.

Mike Gill, former regional director of public health in England, and Muir Gray, a visiting professor at the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences at the University of Oxford, described the tests as an “unevaluated, under-designed and costly mess”. Gill and Gray raised evidence from a preliminary evaluation by Porton Down and Oxford University that suggests the test misses between one in two and one in four cases. Although the joint study concluded the lateral flow tests enabled “a massive increase in testing”, it noted the importance of training, as poorly collected samples could compromise test efficacy.

UCU said staff were at risk if asked to conduct the tests. Volunteer medical and nursing students will staff some university testing centres. Professor Simone Buitendijk, the vice-chancellor of the University of Leeds, thanked “all of the staff and students who will be working in the asymptomatic testing centres over the next few weeks”.

As well as ensuring students can return home this Christmas, these pilots will enable vital lessons to be learned on the nationwide scaling up of asymptomatic testing that other industries and society as a whole will substantially benefit from
– Alistair Jarvis, Universities UK

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said the government plan for mass testing was “a recipe for chaos that risk spreading the virus”. She criticised the late changes to the plans, which suggest “the programme has been rushed with last-minute alterations”, the availability of tests and the lack of financial support for students to self-isolate.

She continued: “If the government continues to insist on in-person teaching in January students travelling back to university would be moving across the country into and out of different tiers. If they are moving back to their term-time address it is not clear whether they should follow the rules from the tier they have come from, or the tier they have moved to.

“UCU is concerned that many students will have spent the holidays in high prevalence Covid areas and then move back to areas of low prevalence and mixing in households, classrooms and lecture theatres. University staff need to be able to plan now for how they will teach and assess students next term but by waiting until the last minute to release guidance for January, ministers are helping to sow the seeds of the turmoil we saw in September.

“This week we filed our legal challenge against the government’s decision to ignore SAGE advice to move university learning online to pressure it to stop making these reckless decisions.”

Alistair Jarvis, the chief executive of Universities UK, said: “Over the past few weeks university staff across the UK have worked with the government at considerable pace to develop and roll out enhanced asymptomatic testing for students, as part of the next phase of pilots for the largest network of diagnostic testing facilities in British history.

“As well as ensuring students can return home this Christmas, these pilots will enable vital lessons to be learned on the nationwide scaling up of asymptomatic testing that other industries and society as a whole will substantially benefit from.”

A government spokesperson said: “We have set out tailored guidance to universities designed by public health professionals to enable students to return home for the Christmas holidays while minimising the risk of transmission.

“The tests are safe, simple to use and do not require medically trained staff to administer them. Just like the tests available across our regional test sites, individuals will be asked to self-swab under guidance from trained staff.”

Read more: Two universities drop entrance requirements

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