‘Major outbreaks’ of Omicron likely on UK campuses, warn experts

Delayed roll-out of booster jabs among UK’s younger population means thousands of students will be at risk of serious infection, say researchers

January 14, 2022
Government advertisement poster promoting the Covid-19 booster vaccine seen at a bus shelter in London to illustrate ‘Major outbreaks’ of Omicron likely on UK campuses, warn experts
Source: Getty

UK universities are at high risk of “major outbreaks” of Covid-19 given the high Omicron infection rates among returning students, many of whom have yet to receive booster vaccinations, experts have warned.

While England’s education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, has said he expects students to be taught in person this month, infectious disease experts and statistical modellers have warned that low levels of triple vaccination among undergraduates should prompt universities to act with “caution” and “care” when deciding teaching policies for January.

Kevin McConway, emeritus professor of applied statistics at the Open University, said it was important to note that thousands of students would only become eligible for their third Covid jab – conferring high levels of protection against Omicron – later this month.

“You can’t get a booster jab in England until three months after your second dose, and in England for the 18-24 age group only just over half had had their second dose by mid-October, so would become eligible to have their booster before mid-January if that’s when they return,” explained Professor McConway.

Booster appointments are also delayed by at least 28 days if someone has a positive test, he added. “So it looks as if there will still be a lot of students around at the start of term who have not been boosted, simply because they aren’t yet eligible.”

The most detailed Office for National Statistics (ONS) data available – which indicated that one in every 15 people in their late teens or early twenties in London was infected with Covid in early December – offered the most helpful guide to infection levels in the student cohort, Professor McConway said.

“At those kinds of levels, even if they reduce quite a bit in the next couple of weeks, there will be a lot of infection in returning students,” he explained.

“Given the spike in infections in freshers week last year, the considerably higher rates of infection in the relevant age groups in the country now compared to then, and the fact that Omicron is so much easier to transmit, I think the risk of major outbreaks in universities as students go back for next term is considerable.

“A return to on-campus in-person teaching isn’t going to help that situation, so decisions to do that will need a lot of care,” Professor McConway added, stating “there could well be quite a lot of serious illness” among students, despite the lower risk of serious illness faced by younger age groups.

The University and College Union has called on higher education institutions to “raise their game” in the fight against Omicron by allowing vulnerable staff to work remotely and ensuring higher quality face masks are freely available for all staff working in person on campus.

David Strain, senior clinical lecturer at the University of Exeter Medical School, believed the “biggest risk to students is that of long Covid” – which, according to ONS data, was affecting about 102,000 people aged 17 to 24 in early December.

“With the return to university and campus, I would be urging students to treat the first month with caution, given the high prevalence and easy transmissibility,” said Dr Strain.

“As a minimum, we would be urging students to be wearing masks and maintaining physical distancing in larger groups at university, and to be making use of lateral flow tests before going out and socialising in the evening.”

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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