The Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) have published a report on the risks Higher Education poses to the transmission of Coronavirus.

The document, released on the 3rd September, addresses and advises on how Universities can and should help control the spread of COVID-19, as well as the potential risks that Universities returning this month could pose to public health.

SAGE advise that “There is a significant risk that Higher Education (HE) could amplify local and national transmission, and this requires national oversight.”

This is not unexpected, with thousands of students from across the country (and indeed the world) coming together in close proximity, the risk of infections rising is a likely one, indeed there is evidence to suggest that infections are rising among younger people anyway.

Accommodation and social interactions are highlighted to be “high risk” environments for transmission as freshers (and some returners) move into their shared accommodation. The paper suggests that Universities should mitigate the risks as much as possible, including “segmentation of students to co-locate courses or year groups”, as well as the usual washing of hands and general hygiene.

The ‘Christmas Risk’

There are some key findings of the paper which are outside of the obvious.

The first is the risks of transmission not just within the local community, but when students return home for Christmas. Jim Dickinson has referred to this as “Santa’s Amplifier”.

The good news is that the committee believe that the number of current infections is so low that there is little to no risk of “outbreak amplification” at the beginning of term. The issue that SAGE are concerned about is that of the risks at the end of term, when students and staff return home for Christmas.

This, the committee advises, poses a “significant risk to both extenuated families and local communities”, and is marked as a “high confidence” risk – meaning it is highly likely to occur.

The concern from the committee seems to be focused mainly on those who live “away from home” and return only for Christmas at the end of term.

However, Mr. Dickinson has argued that there is an assumption of what he calls a “boarding school” model for higher education, that those who live “away from home” don’t return until Christmas whereas the reality is that a “substantial percentage” of these students live within the region of their University and return home almost every weekend.

This, he believes, has been an oversight from SAGE and may lead to higher infection rates earlier than expected.

The paper also demonstrates the committee’s concerns about university wide transmissions that “spill over” into local communities, whilst the size of the risk is dependent on whether the University is a campus or a city institution, the risk is still there.

The Four Scenarios

SAGE have also advised Universities in this paper to plan for at the very least the following types of outbreak:

  • large-scale outbreak which may result in substantial restrictions implemented at a local level that impact on HE activities;
  • localised outbreak associated with student accommodation, either halls of residence or houses of multiple occupation;
  • localised outbreak associated with a particular student/staff cohort or academic department;
  • Multiple outbreaks in different HE settings, or particularly large-scale outbreaks, that could have significant impact on national transmission.

Loughborough University has provided students with a detailed pamphlet about the plans for the 2020-21 academic year and the potential changes to campus life as a result of coronavirus. Despite this, there is still growing concerns from students that there is no certainty with what is being communicated.

There has also been growing concern that LSU haven’t yet communicated to students their plan for Freshers, and in general student activities. With nights out potentially being a thing of the past, the student activities part of the Union is more important than ever, and the lack of communication to key volunteers has started to make some feel disenfranchised by LSU.

One key volunteer told Label  that “The union are going to lose out so bad” if the relationship between students and the Union is not made early on.

What can be said for certain is that there is going to be an increase in the number of infections that can be linked directly back to the opening of both schools and university campuses.

Cover Image by Chris Leroux


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