Labour calls for ‘urgent’ action on UK campus coronavirus testing

Letter from shadow universities minister follows Sage paper warning over impact of return to campuses

September 9, 2020
Covid test
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The UK’s opposition party has written to the government asking it to “urgently ensure” that students and staff at English universities have access to coronavirus testing and calling for guidance to be issued on the wearing of face masks indoors.

Labour’s shadow universities minister, Emma Hardy, also called on her counterpart Michelle Donelan to explore the possibility of introducing mass testing on campus, including of those without symptoms, to “build confidence in universities and their communities that students are able to return safely”. 

It follows growing concerns that the sector needs a more coordinated approach after a paper from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) warned there was “a significant risk” that a return to campuses “could amplify local and national transmission”, something that would require “national oversight”.

In her letter to Ms Donelan, Ms Hardy said that “the government must act now to ensure that universities are able to reopen safely” and said with case numbers rising in the community, it “must get a grip before it is too late”. 

“In the weeks ahead almost 2 million students will begin a new academic year. The majority will be moving from one part of the country to another in the largest internal migration that we will see this year, while those studying at a local university will begin a new daily commute and mix with new arrivals,” the letter says.

“I am deeply concerned that this is taking place against the backdrop of rising coronavirus cases, with your department still unable to outline the concrete measures that it will take in order to reduce the spread of the virus in higher education settings.” 

The letter calls “as a minimum”, for the government to make sure “all students, staff and members of the wider community are able to access a test when they need one” while also looking at the possibility of introducing mass testing.

It also calls on England’s higher education regulator, the Office for Students, to “urgently issue guidance calling for face coverings to be worn in indoor areas on campus, bringing this in line with other parts of our education system”. 

“While universities are autonomous institutions, it is important that your department provides clear leadership and support on such essential matters of public health,” the letter adds.

“It is time to stop passing the buck to individual universities and to deliver a national plan that ramps up testing, drives down transmission, and allows students to learn while keeping staff, students and the community safe.” 

The letter follows similar calls from the University and College Union, which said that the Sage paper added further weight to its calls for teaching to stay online until Christmas.   

It also comes as the government announces a change in social restrictions in England that are likely to severely impact campus life, with the limit on meetings between separate households reduced to six people from next week.

Although gatherings for educational purposes are exempt, the new rules could severely curtail socialising in and around campuses.

The Department for Education has been contacted for comment.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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