University students in England are set to be given a six-day window to return home for Christmas after lockdown.
But the Government plan has already been slammed for being ‘riddled with holes’, with around a million students set to travel across the country in early December.
Universities in England have been told to switch to online classes by early next month and set staggered departure dates between December 3 and 9, to allow families to be reunited for the festive period. It comes amid fears that returning students could spread coronavirus across the country, following various outbreaks at universities. The virus is less dangerous to young people but they could infect more at risk elderly relatives.
The University and College Union general secretary Jo Grady warned: ‘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 cautioned.
The plan allows students enough time to complete the self-isolation period and return home for Christmas if they test positive for Covid-19 before the travel window.
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 have the virus.
It is also unclear whether the move could be delayed, if the national lockdown were to be extended.
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 continued: ‘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, in a further effort to reduce the risk of transmission.
Deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries 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 currently running a pilot project for rapid coronavirus testing – including identifying asymptomatic cases who could infect others.
It is using Lateral Flow Tests, which are self administered using a nose and throat swab, and deliver results in just 30 minutes.
After the voluntary pilot, the university is now exploring whether it is feasible to roll out mass testing across the whole institution in time for 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.
‘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.’
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