Students could be confined to campus for Christmas to try to limit the spread of the coronavirus, England’s Health Secretary warned today.
The move is prompted by fears that students heading home for the holidays could lead to a spike in cases among their families and local communities, who are potentially more vulnerable to the virus.
And it comes as hundreds of students in Glasgow have been told to stay in their rooms after more than 100 tested positive for Covid-19 just days after the start of the academic year.
The return to campus was always seen as a potential trigger for new outbreaks, with hundreds of thousands of young people moving around the country.
In the U.S., more colleges have moved online after the start of the new semester coincided with an increase in Covid19 cases, and in some instances students have been blamed for bringing the virus onto campus.
The University and College Union, which represents many academic staff in the U.K., had called on universities to continue remote teaching up until Christmas, but most higher education institutions in the U.K. opened this month with at least some element of face-to-face teaching.
But Health Secretary Matt Hancock today refused to rule out confining students to campus over the Christmas and New Year holiday.
He told BBC’s Radio 4 that while a Campus Christmas was not the Government’s goal, it could be considered as part of efforts to suppress the virus.
‘I don’t want to have a situation like that and I very much hope we can avoid it,’ he said. ‘I’ve learned not to rule things out and one of the challenges that we have is how to make sure people are as safe as possible.’
It is not clear how confining students to campus could work, but it could involve universities taking disciplinary action, including suspending students from their studies, against those who flout the restrictions.
Minutes of a meeting of the government’s scientific advisory group (SAGE) earlier this month warned of the risk of outbreaks spilling over from universities and colleges as students returned home at the end of term.
‘This could pose risk to both local communities and families, and will require national oversight, monitoring and decision-making,’ the minutes said.
And fears of the return to campus prompting a spike in cases appear to have been borne out with 124 students at Glasgow University testing positive just days into the academic year.
Around 600 students have been asked to stay in self-isolation in their rooms to try to prevent the spread of the virus.
And the university warned that students who put others at risk faced disciplinary action, including termination of their accommodation contracts and suspension from the university.
Outbreaks have been reported at a number of other U.K. universities, including Dundee, Liverpool and Aberdeen.
Jo Grady, general secretary of the UCU, said students and their parents would rightly be worried about the prospect of being stuck away from home over Christmas.
‘Locking students down at Christmas is based on a flawed boarding school vision of university that ignores the fact thousands of staff and students commute every day around the UK to and from university,’ she said. ‘Threatening to lock students up over the festive period is not the solution.’
She said the Government should tell universities to suspend face-to-face teaching, move more teaching online and stop more students from coming onto campus.