The Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) in their latest meeting has encouraged Ministers to prevent students from returning home after the term ends at Christmas.
SAGE warn of ‘larger outbreaks’ when students return from university at the end of the academic term.
Experts are concerned that students will spread COVID-19 back to their local communities when they return home for the Christmas break and urged ministers to develop policies to mitigate the risks posed.
These warnings are contained in the latest minutes to be published from meetings of SAGE.
One scientific advisor spoke to the I on Wednesday saying that the issue of students returning home for Christmas was of “sufficient national concern” to demand that the Government monitor the situation and prevent further outbreaks.
Universities that have already returned, including Liverpool and Dundee, have been hit with rising infection rates. The University of Liverpool has confirmed that 87 cases have been identified from students returning to campus and the University of Dundee has told 500 students to isolate after an outbreak in halls of residence.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Unit, said that “Ministers will have to tell students that it’s best you stay away from home this year. It is no different from any other situation. If you are following the science then what else can the Government say?”
In an interview on BBC Radio 4 the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, when pressed on the issue, said “our goal is to suppress the virus whilst protecting the economy and education.
“The issues we’re dealing with today… represent the strategy that we have to suppress the virus as much as we can… In terms of universities we’re working closely with them to try to make sure that students are safe, but that they can also get their education.”
When further pressed for an answer, Mr. Hancock stated that he’s learned to not rule things out but that “this is not our goal… I wouldn’t… I don’t want to leave you with the expectation but we just have to work on all contingencies at this stage”.
A Loughborough University spokesperson said:
“At this stage the University has not received any official guidance on asking students to remain on campus over the Christmas break. We know the Health Secretary was asked to speculate on this today and at present it does not appear to be any part of the Government’s mainstream plans. However, if needed, we will provide adequate testing to ensure our students can return home safely at the end of term.”
Richard Taylor, Chief Operating Officer for Loughborough University, tweeted that there was “no reasonable basis” behind the claims, but that the Government needs to “say something clear” in order to stop rumours like this spreading.
I spent a considerable amount of time last night speaking to contacts to ascertain the provenance of the ‘students not allowed home for Xmas’ story. I can find no reasonable basis. DfE/UUK say ‘this is not government policy’.
— Richard Taylor (@RichardTaylor_) September 26, 2020
The reports come after an increased number of cases across the country, and on Friday the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced that the United Kingdom is facing a ‘second wave’ of COVID-19. Leading the Government to announce a range of measures being reintroduced, including the ‘rule of 6’ as well as hospitality venues closing at 10pm in order to limit the amount of time the coronavirus has to spread.
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Story Updated 26/09/20 to include comments from Richard Taylor