‘Huge hurdles’ for mass pre-Christmas Covid tests, says union

Government plans week of mass testing to get English students home for festive season

November 10, 2020
Covid test
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The UK’s biggest higher education union has said plans to conduct mass coronavirus testing among students so that they can safely return to their family home for Christmas “present a huge logistical challenge”.

The University and College Union was responding to reports that the government has planned a week of mass testing of university students in England from 30 November to 6 December.

In a letter to vice-chancellors, universities minister Michelle Donelan said universities would be provided with free self-administered nose and throat swab tests, the BBC reported.

Results would be available within an hour, and those who test negative would be allowed to return home. Those who test positive would be required to take another test; if that is also positive, they would have to self-isolate.

With more than a million students expected to return to their family home, what will happen to students at Christmas has become a thorny issue for universities and the government, which has pledged to allow them home.

However, the mass exodus risks spreading the virus further, scientists have warned, particularly if students are returning from Covid “hotspots”.

The latest national lockdown has kept universities open for in-person teaching but requires on-campus students to stay in their halls of residences.

The new proposals suggest that the first week of December would be the window for university students to go home if they wish, with the government previously having suggested that all teaching would need to move online for the rest of the month.

However, the UCU said the mass testing plan “presented huge logistical challenges that may leave staff and students stuck in limbo.”

The union also called for the government to make plans for the start of the next academic term in January.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said she “hoped” that the government would be able to properly oversee mass testing of students at the end of term, “but there are huge hurdles to overcome to manage this process”.

“Some of our concerns include whether all universities will be able to take part, how the tests will be administered, who will cover the costs, what the plan is for students who commute to campus daily from their family home, and how students who aren’t able to be tested will travel home safely,” Dr Grady said.

A Universities UK spokeswoman welcomed the government’s “ambition” for improved asymptomatic Covid testing.

“For a major roll-out of asymptomatic testing to be successful, universities now need clear assurance of the effectiveness of the tests as well as further details from the government on specific responsibilities under the proposed scheme, including the governance, indemnity, resourcing and costs recovery,” the spokeswoman said.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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