Covid-19: don’t gamble with health, says union after Sage report

Government scientific advisers call for nationally coordinated response to campus outbreaks

September 7, 2020
Student wearing mask
Source: iStock

The UK’s biggest higher education union said that the health of staff and students was “too important to gamble with”, after government science advisers warned of a “significant risk” that the reopening of university campuses could amplify coronavirus transmission.

A paper produced by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) calls for national oversight to coordinate institutions’ responses to outbreaks, and for mass testing to be trialled to detect cases.

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said the report added further weight to its call for teaching to remain online-only until Christmas.

“What we really need now is a serious response from universities and government,” Dr Grady said. “The health of university staff, students and the wider community is too important to gamble with; this is not business as usual.”

The Sage report, published on 4 September, says that all universities should expect to have Covid-19 cases and that it was “highly likely” that some providers “will have to manage the consequences of a significant outbreak either directly associated with their setting or within their local community or region”.

It pinpoints the end of the autumn term as a particular danger, following potential spread of the virus on campuses during the first weeks of classes and students then returning to their families and communities before Christmas.

Sage says it may be necessary for universities “to take coordinated action in November to prevent seeding and disseminated outbreaks in December”.

“It is therefore important that a coordinated outbreak response strategy is urgently put in place to link between government, the National Institute for Health Protection, HE institutions and local public health teams and local authorities to monitor incidence and prevalence of infection associated with HE and take appropriate actions,” the paper says.

Sage also calls for a national strategy for additional testing in higher education to be drawn up, and suggests that “wider scale testing” is likely to be beneficial in controlling outbreaks, proposing universities as good locations to pilot mass testing.

Raj Jethwa, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, said the Sage report “provides useful advice on how universities can manage the risk associated with coronavirus”.

“Universities have been working hard to manage those risks and to plan for a safe return to campus,” he said.

Mr Jethwa said universities would continue to work with unions and sector agencies “to help develop planning and reassure staff, students and the public that we are committed to addressing pandemic workforce issues and help secure a safe return to campus life”.

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Reader's comments (1)

There should be testing capacity set up on campuses rather than in underused locations as at present. The risk to the students themselves seems low so it just a question of making sure they do not pass the virus on.