Revealed: The advice given to universities on how to deal with COVID outbreaks
Written by on 10 September 2020
Universities have been told not to send students home in the event of a coronavirus outbreak to “reduce the risk of transmitting it through travel”.
Guidance from the Department for Education (DfE) states that universities must have a plan in place that “assumes there is likely to be an increase in the number of cases, or an outbreak associated with their setting”.
Such outbreaks could coincide with Christmas and pose “a significant risk” to extended families, according to a paper published by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).
Published in the early hours of Thursday, the government advice also warns that face-to-face lessons should only be offered for priority courses.
Support should also be given to allow youngsters to socialise in COVID-secure environments, such as in campus bars and students’ unions, and universities should identify “safer social activities” for them.
Universities have been told they should not allow students to have “private gatherings” in halls of residence if they exceed the limits for meetings in private households, following the announcement of new measures.
During a coronavirus briefing in Downing Street on Wednesday, Boris Johnson introduced the “rule of six”, which makes it illegal in England for groups of more than six people to meet up – both inside and outdoors – from Monday.
The tough new rules are an effort to tackle a sharp rise in cases among young people, and anyone breaking them could be fined and even arrested.
The DfE guidance says that in student accommodation, universities are expected to identify “households” to manage routine contact as safely as possible.
These households in halls of residence would be students living in the same flat, or on the same floor who share a kitchen or bathroom.
It adds: “The reopening of campuses for academic year 2020 to 2021 will bring about a mass movement of students from across the UK and overseas, with the vast majority moving from other regions into student accommodation in the region in which their HE (Higher Education) provider is located.
“The creation of many new households brings with it a degree of risk, and we expect providers to take all reasonable actions to minimise this risk.”
For learning, a mix of face-to-face tuition and online lessons has been recommended as the “default position”.
Face coverings should be worn “where social distancing is difficult to maintain outside of teaching situations” – such as corridors and communal areas.
The last resort would in the event of a coronavirus outbreak would be for university buildings to close to everyone, except key workers, and for the majority of provision to shift online.
Meanwhile, at least two prominent universities have announced COVID-19 testing plans aimed at avoiding major disruptions due to the virus.
Cambridge says it will offer all students in college accommodation weekly tests after term begins on 8 October, and will go beyond government guidance and offer testing even if students show no symptoms.
The university’s vice-chancellor, Stephen J Toope, said: “We look forward to welcoming our students back and want to reassure them – and the wider local community – that we are doing everything we can to make sure they feel safe and supported while they are here.
“This screening programme is just one of a number of measures that we are putting in place to keep our university and city safe.”
Exeter University said it would work with Halo, the UK’s first commercial provider of saliva-based COVID tests, to offer simple and fast means of finding cases and reassuring students who fall ill but are not infected.
It will also provide students and staff with face coverings, digital thermometers, COVID-secure buildings and a so-called Rapid Response Hub for them to report symptoms and request tests.