Falling Covid-19 cases ‘may not halt UK campus shutdowns’

Data suggest coronavirus levels at some universities are falling but a second peak nationally may force a digital-only switch, experts warn

十月 27, 2020
Students look out of the windows of the student accommodation who have been placed under covid-19 restrictions
Source: Getty

Falling coronavirus infection rates at some UK universities may not be enough to prevent a switch to digital-only learning in the new year, experts have warned.

While the number of Covid-19 cases soared on campuses shortly after the start of term, latest figures compiled by the University and College Union (UCU) indicate that the spread of the virus in many Covid-19 hotspots has slowed. The increase in positive tests slowed significantly at Manchester, Northumbria, Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam universities in the days up to 21 October.

According to the University of Nottingham, which registered the most positive coronavirus tests up to 21 October, with 1,890 cases in total, active cases fell from 1,430 on 12 October to 435 on 21 October. At Manchester, its seven-day rolling average of positive cases fell from about 150 a day on 7 October to around 20 a day on 20 October.

Despite infection numbers levelling off in some areas, however, it was possible that students may not return to campuses in the new year if a nationwide peak of coronavirus cases predicted by some experts for Christmas did materialise, said Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh.

“It also depends on government strategy for tackling the epidemic, which has changed in the past and may change again,” he said. “If the government opts again for suppressing the virus, as in March, then that will imply stricter lockdown measures locally or even nationally, and it is entirely possible that would include universities.”

Jo Grady, the UCU’s general secretary, called on the government to hold a review in late December to determine whether it was safe for students to return to campus in January.

“It would be reprehensible if the government were to allow the same disaster to unfold all over again,” said Dr Grady, whose union has campaigned for students to be released from accommodation contracts and allowed to return home if they wished.

Sheila Bird, formerly a programme leader at the MRC Biostatistics Unit at the University of Cambridge, said a combination of swab testing and quarantine of students was needed before the Christmas vacation, to protect older family members, but also when students returned to campus.

“Travel between regions by students en masse between home and university at the start of terms is an accelerator for Sars-CoV-2 transmission, as was recently seen at the start of this academic year,” said Professor Bird.

However, Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said he would be surprised to see either universities switch to digital-only after Christmas or the government enforce such a move.

“The government seems to hold the view that, even when there is a local lockdown, universities should continue to operate in-person tuition where possible,” said Mr Hillman, who added that most students wanted to return to campus despite the risks. “I don’t think it is the economics driving the decision on the part of universities – students have already voted with their feet and shown they want to be taught on campus.”

Mr Hillman said that “students seemed to be behaving differently” following the celebrations of freshers’ week, “which appears to have dampened down the virus”.

“There is also a false assumption that students are safe at home but more at risk at university when they may be actually putting older family members at risk by living at home,” he said.




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