Covid: UK union calls for teaching to stay online all next term

Researchers suggest campuses may need to close to in-person teaching to restrain spread of new coronavirus variant

December 24, 2020
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All university teaching in the UK should stay online for the whole of next term, following the outbreak of a new strain of coronavirus and rising cases across the country, according higher education’s biggest union.

Universities were told by ministers at the beginning of December to stagger the return of students through January and February and offer all students Covid tests when they arrived on campus. 

However, a new strain of Sars-CoV-2 has been detected in England and has been shown to be particularly infectious.

Analysis by researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that the new strain was estimated to be 56 per cent more transmissible than previous variants, and that hospitalisations and deaths could “reach higher levels in 2021 than were observed in 2020” unless schools and universities are closed.

They suggest that one option is to close educational facilities in the areas that have seen the worst outbreaks – London, the east of England and the south-east – but added that it was likely they would need to close across the whole of the UK to properly stem transmission.    

University and College Union (UCU) general secretary Jo Grady said that “the government needs to stop pretending it is safe for universities to reopen as planned”.

Dr Grady said the Westminster government “has conjured up a new tier of Covid restrictions for parts of the UK and forced millions to abandon plans for Christmas because of this new strain, but it has not changed its guidance for over a million students to travel back to university campuses, starting in early January”.

The government must “listen to UCU’s calls for all non-essential in-person teaching to remain online for the whole of next term”. She pointed out that the lateral flow testing being used by universities as the basis for resuming in-person teaching have been deemed “inaccurate and give a false sense of security” by the minister in charge of Covid testing, Lord Bethell of Romford.

Other scientists involved in piloting the testing have recently defended their usefulness.

John Drury, professor of social psychology at the University of Sussex and a member of the Independent Sage group of scientists, agreed that teaching should go online next term. 

“I understand vice-chancellors’ financial concerns, but that is an argument for greater government support for universities, not for in-person teaching,” he said. “While lecture theatres can be Covid-secure if only limited numbers attend, it is known now that halls of residence are places where the virus spreads easily. Travel to and from the university is also a risk area.”

Vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK said that “the health, safety and well-being of students and staff is the priority for universities. The sector will continue to follow the latest government and public health guidance.”

The Department for Education pointed to its guidance from the beginning of December on staggered returns and increased testing.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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