English health minister won’t rule out Christmas student lockdown

Meanwhile, Scottish students in halls and flats are already forbidden from returning to parents’ homes

September 24, 2020
sad lonely Christmas
Source: iStock

England’s health secretary has refused to rule out banning students from returning home at Christmas to limit the spread of Covid-19.

In response to a question on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme about whether students would be asked to stay at university at Christmas, Matt Hancock said he had “learned not to rule things out” and “we have to work on all contingencies at the moment”.

“I don’t want to have a situation like that and I very much hope we can avoid it,” he said.

“We have said throughout that our goal is to suppress the virus, whilst protecting the economy and protecting education. And protecting people in education whether it’s school or university is obviously critical as is protecting the economy.”

His comments follow reports of several coronavirus outbreaks at UK universities.

Meanwhile, the Scottish government’s national clinical director Jason Leitch said on Twitter that students in Scotland would not be able to go back to their parents’ homes due to new restrictions that stop residents visiting other households. 

“Was asked last night whether students in halls and flats can go back to parents’ homes. To clarify, they are a separate household. There are exceptions, e.g. caring responsibilities, but the law is clear: they can’t meet indoors with another household – even mum and dad. Sorry,” he tweeted.

Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester, said that while students and families need “advice or guidelines”, banning students from returning home at Christmas is “a really bad and impractical idea”.

“Other than those with no choice – such as international students who can’t travel, students leaving care and other UK students who can’t return ‘home‘ for other reasons – this feels like something that would be very, very hard to enforce (and with very low compliance),” he said. 

Minutes from a meeting of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) on 1 September noted that “risks of larger outbreaks spilling over from HE institutions are more likely to occur towards the end of the academic term, coinciding with the Christmas and New Year period when students return home. This could pose risk to both local communities and families, and will require national oversight, monitoring and decision-making”.

In response to Mr Hancock’s comments, the University and College Union said that the government should tell universities to make online learning their default position immediately.

“Locking students down at Christmas is based on a flawed boarding school vision of university that ignores the fact thousands of staff and students commute every day around the UK to and from university. Threatening to lock students up over the festive period is not the solution,” said UCU general secretary Jo Grady.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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