UCL to offer staff and students Covid tests when term resumes

University is the latest to take testing into its own hands as the government’s programme receives continued criticism from school and college leaders

UCL has announced plans to test up to 1,000 staff and students a day for coronavirus, as the government’s testing programme comes under renewed scrutiny from school and college leaders.

The university – which is the largest in the UK by total enrolment and one of the biggest research-intensive institutions in the country – announced the plan to oversee its own testing programme yesterday.

It joins a growing list of universities, which includes University of East Anglia (UEA) and the University of Exeter, to decide to take testing in-house.

UCL is aiming to provide up to 1,000 tests every day for symptomatic staff and students by the start of term on 28 September. Asymptomatic testing will only be undertaken “where our public health advisers consider this appropriate”, the university continued.

Testing will be processed by UCL’s diagnostic laboratory partner, Health Services Laboratories. A pilot programme for staff will now be expanded in line with the government’s guidance for universities that aim to set up their own testing capabilities.

Our aim is to complement the national testing service, not replace it
Prof Michael Arthur, president

Senior leaders said the scheme would “complement” the government’s national testing service and will refer all positive cases across to the NHS Track and Trace programme. Health secretary Matt Hancock has vowed to improve the government’s testing programme in the face of opprobrium from headteachers, governors and teaching union leaders.

UCL president and provost Prof Michael Arthur said: “Our aim is to complement the national testing service, not replace it. Anyone who tests positive for the virus will be referred to the NHS Track and Trace system as normal.

“By combining UCL’s additional testing provision and our new ‘Connect to Protect’ reporting tool – together with the national systems already in place – we can make sure our campus is as safe as possible for everyone. These new initiatives will augment the wide range of safety measures that we have already introduced.

“The limited face-to-face activity that has been planned for next term will take place within these guidelines and we will monitor the number of any positive coronavirus cases at UCL very carefully.”

UEA’s programme will offer tests to all staff and students at the start of term and will include asymptomatic testing. The university hopes to scale testing up to make repeat testing available for students who develop symptoms during the term. Exeter announced this week it had agreed a partnership with Halo, the UK’s first commercial provider of saliva-based PCR tests for Covid-19. The agreement will ensure rapid testing of students and staff at campuses in Exeter and Cornwall, providing both same day and next day results, the university said.

The National Association of Head Teachers, the Association of School and College Leaders and the National Governance Association wrote to the prime minister after “mounting concern” about the availability of testing. “Schools are left in a position of either leaving close contacts of the infected person in school while they wait for guidance or making a public health call themselves and deciding on who to send home. This places leaders in an impossible situation,” the joint letter read. The NASUWT – the teachers’ union – wrote separately to the PM.

The general secretary of the University and College Union yesterday warned she would “name and shame” universities if staff were unhappy with the provisions to protect them from Covid-19. Dr Jo Grady said she wanted to know how universities have risk-assessed the next term, including “better information about testing systems in place”.

“We accept that guidance from the government has not been up to scratch, but colleges and universities cannot hide behind the failings of ministers. They must step up and do the right things to protect their communities,” Dr Grady said. “We will be monitoring what comes in from members and will name and shame institutions that are not up to scratch.”

University Business has approached UCU for details of how many universities have yet to share risk assessments with local union representatives and is awaiting a response.

Read more: Tuition fee refunds: ombudsman to develop ‘bespoke system’ to handle Covid complaints – DfE

Image via Flickr, Neil Turner

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