Plans to create a travel window for students to return home for Christmas are ‘riddled with holes’, the Government has been told.
Universities in England have been told to switch from in-person teaching to online classes by early December and set staggered departure dates between December 3 and 9 to allow families to be reunited.
Jo Grady, the University and College Union general secretary, highlighted the tight timescale for a mass movement of people, adding: ‘Allowing just a week for around one million students to travel across the country leaves little room for error.’
The Government said Covid-19 tests will be offered to as many students as possible before they travel home but the establishment of testing capacity will be a ‘massive undertaking’, an executive dean at Durham University said.
Students are to be offered swabs before returning home for Christmas, it has been suggested. Pictured above are students at St Andrews University in Scotland
The plans will see Covid-19 swabs offered between November 30 and December 6.
Students will have enough time to complete the self-isolation period and return home for Christmas if they test positive for the virus before the travel window.
The ‘pre-end-of-term testing’ will be offered by NHS Test and Trace, the Daily Telegraph reported on Tuesday.
What will the plan involve?
When will teaching end?
Universities will be encouraged to end in-person teaching before December 3
Teaching for rest of term will move online.
When will students go home?
Students will go home in stages between December 3 and December 9 to avoid a mad rush
The English lockdown ends December 2
Will students be tested?
Before going home, as many students as possible will be offered Covid-19 tests.
Swabs will be offered between November 30 and December 6.
Durham University is already running a pilot project for rapid testing.
Lateral Flow Tests deliver results in just 30 minutes .
What about students who don’t go home?
Students who remain on campus who test positive for Covid-19 will need to self-isolate in their accommodation for 10 days.
Universities will be told to offer help and support – including affordable food.
They newspaper added that university leaders were told the key objective was to test students so they could make ‘informed decisions regarding their return home for Christmas’.
This would, therefore, minimise the risk of ‘spreading the virus to vulnerable people at their destination’.
But if a student decides to remain on campus later into the month, they will need to remain in self-isolation in their student accommodation for 10 days if they test positive for coronavirus.
Universities will be asked to provide additional help and support – including affordable food – to students who remain on campus over Christmas.
Dr Grady said the plans were ‘riddled with holes’ and ‘raise as many questions as they answer’.
She added: ‘If the Government instead told universities to move online now it would provide much more time to stagger the movement of students and better protect the health of staff, students and their wider communities.’
The ‘student travel window’ will begin just as England’s lockdown finishes on December 2 and it is hoped this will reduce the risk of transmission.
Dr Jenny Harries, deputy chief medical officer, said: ‘The mass movement of students across the country at the end of term presents a really significant challenge within the Covid-19 response.
‘The measures announced today will help minimise that risk and help students get home to their families as safely as possible for Christmas. It is crucial that students follow the guidance in order to protect their families and the communities they return to.’
Durham University is already running a pilot project for rapid Covid-19 testing – including identifying those who might be infectious but have no symptoms.
The Lateral Flow Tests, which deliver results in just 30 minutes, uses a nose and throat swab and they are self-administered.
After a voluntary pilot, the university is now exploring whether it is feasible to roll out mass testing across the whole institution before Christmas.
On the Government’s plans to establish mass testing capacity on campuses, Professor Jacqui Ramagge, executive dean for Science at Durham University and project sponsor, said: ‘I don’t think very many [universities] will be prepared for this because I think it’s a massive undertaking.’
Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said: ’We know this Christmas will feel different, and following this incredibly difficult year we are delivering on our commitment to get students back to their loved ones as safely as possible for the holidays.
‘We have worked really hard to find a way to do this for students, while limiting the risk of transmission.
Ministers are concerned that the mass exodus of students from universities before Christmas could spread the virus to other parts of the country. Pictured is the Radcliffe Camera, at Oxford University
‘Now it is vital they follow these measures to protect their families and communities, and for universities to make sure students have all the wellbeing support they need, especially those who stay on campus over the break.’
In anticipation of the announcement, president of the National Union of Students, Larissa Kennedy, said on Tuesday: ‘The government have finally listened to our calls to ensure that students can travel home safely for Christmas.
‘We had raised concerns about plans to make students self-isolate for extended periods of time, and the effect this would have on their mental health, so giving students some much needed clarity will hopefully put many at ease.
‘We particularly welcome this mass-testing approach as it equips students with the knowledge to make informed decisions about travel ahead of the winter break based on individual risk, instead of being subject to blanket rules we’ve seen elsewhere this term.
‘The government must now ensure that universities have enough resource to cope with the mass demand for this testing. We do now need a clear strategy for January return: students deserve better than another term of uncertainty.’