Government plan will ensure students can celebrate Christmas safely

Support must continue beyond 9 December for those with positive Covid-19 tests, international students and others, says minister Michelle Donelan

November 11, 2020
Santa and rudolph christmas

There are few holidays in the UK that are celebrated as much as Christmas. It is a time of togetherness for many of us.

We know that this year will feel different, but this government made a commitment to ensure that students living away at university will be able go home for the festive season.

More than 2 million students are currently studying at UK universities, and, like many of us, they have been hugely affected by coronavirus. Not only have their studies been disrupted, but we have had to take the difficult decision to ask them not to travel home during term time.

I know how difficult this term has been for them, but these were vital steps that crucially allowed education to continue while reducing transmission of the virus and saving lives.

I am delighted that we are able to deliver on our pledge for students, and today we have published guidance setting out what students in England must do to ensure that they can safely return to their families at Christmas.

Students will be asked to follow the current national restrictions in place until 2 December, completing this four-week period in their term-time accommodation. From 3 to 9 December, which will be known as the “student travel window”, they will be allowed to travel home on staggered departure dates set by their universities to help manage the pressure on the transport network.

This window will mean students’ travel having followed the national restrictions for four weeks, reducing the risk of transmission to family and friends at home.

To support students, we are asking English universities to make sure that all courses are online by 9 December so that learning can continue even if students choose to return home.

As the prime minister announced this week, we are also working closely with universities to roll out mass testing for students. We have made huge strides in our testing capability in recent weeks, and we will offer tests to as many students as possible before they travel home, targeting this in areas of high prevalence. This will help to provide further confidence that students can leave safely if they test negative.

If a student tests positive before their departure, they will, of course, need to remain in self-isolation for the required period. However, moving all learning online by 9 December gives enough time for students to complete the isolation period and return home for Christmas. 

I am hugely grateful for the efforts of university staff, who have pulled out all the stops to deliver both online and in-person teaching, while supporting the pastoral and mental health needs of students during this time.

Since I became universities minister, my focus has been where families would expect it to be: the safety, well-being and health of students. It is vital that this support continues for those groups who choose to stay at university after the end of term, including our international students, care leavers and students who are estranged from their families. We have asked universities to make specific plans to care for these students.

The prime minister has been clear that we did not want to introduce another period of national restrictions, but it is necessary to help fight the spread of this virus and protect those around us.

I have been amazed at what universities and students have been able to achieve in spite of Covid-19, and I know that as this year draws to an end, families want nothing more than to be with their loved ones over the holidays.

I hope this new guidance provides everyone with the reassurance that this is the safest possible way to be together this Christmas.

Michelle Donelan is the UK’s minister for universities.

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