Omicron: DfE ‘strongly advising’ mask wearing on English campuses

New guidance will be reviewed in three weeks’ time and is largely unchanged

November 29, 2021
A masked student
Source: iStock

The Westminster government is “strongly advising” that staff and students in English universities wear face coverings in communal areas, in response to the new Omicron variant of Covid-19.

The Department for Education guidance, which also covers visitors to campuses and applies from 29 November, was issued after the government once again made the wearing of masks compulsory in shops and on public transport.

Most of the existing guidance remains unchanged, and the DfE said the new measures were “temporary and precautionary” and would be reviewed in three weeks.

The department said universities should continue to encourage staff and students to test themselves for coronavirus twice weekly using lateral flow tests, and to get vaccinated. The current guidance on contact tracing and isolation – which means that close contacts should take PCR tests but do not need to isolate unless they are unvaccinated – also remains in place. The exception is close contacts of suspected or confirmed Omicron cases, who will be asked to isolate for 10 days.

How much difference the shift in government advice would make remained to be seen because most institutions had already been encouraging or requesting that students and staff wear face coverings on campus.

Debate has instead focused on academics’ calls for mask-wearing to be mandatory, and on whether such requirements should apply within classrooms as well as in communal areas.

Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary, said that news of the Omicron variant, which scientists believe may be more transmissible than previous versions of the virus, would “understandably cause concern for people”.

“We are already taking targeted and proportionate action as a precaution while we find out more information about the new variant. As we do so, we will continue to prioritise children’s and young people’s education and well-being, making sure education and childcare settings are as safe as possible,” he said.

The emergence of the Omicron variant has also led to changes in travel rules, with all arrivals in the UK required to take a PCR test within 48 hours of arrival, and mandatory self-isolation being imposed until they receive a negative result.

A number of African nations have been added to the travel red list, meaning that nationals of these countries are barred from entering England, with similar rules applying in much of the rest of the UK. These countries are: Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

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Reader's comments (1)

It's all very well 'making recommendations' it's rather like Sergeant Wilson on Dad's Army saying 'would you mind standing to attention'. The fact is that with a few exceptions students don't wear face coverings, not in public spaces, nor in lectures. One University has provided (since the start of term) a slide to show at the start of lectures which says 'face coverings should be worn during this lecture - please respect the wishes of the module leader and help protect those who are vulnerable'. Most will simply sit there, unmasked and defiant. I am certain that some students who have concerns or underlying health conditions are staying away.