Plan to keep Covid-hit students on UK campuses ‘irresponsible’

Union criticises government guidance and reiterates call to keep teaching online-only until Christmas

September 9, 2020
Boris Johnson
Source: iStock

The University and College Union has described the Westminster government’s plan to keep students on campuses in the event of a coronavirus outbreak as “ridiculously irresponsible”.

Speaking at a press conference on 9 September, Boris Johnson said guidance on reopening higher education institutions would include “a clear request not to send students home in the event of an outbreak, so as to avoid spreading the virus across the country”.

But UCU general secretary Jo Grady said that the prime minister should be “working to prevent unnecessary Covid outbreaks, not creating the conditions for them”, reiterating the union’s call for teaching to remain online-only until Christmas.

The row comes after a paper produced by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) warned of a “significant risk” that the reopening of campuses could amplify coronavirus transmission and pinpointed the return of infected students to their families and communities as a particular concern.

In his press conference, Mr Johnson said that opening universities was “critical” for students’ life chances and claimed that “the health risks to individuals are low”.

While the newly announced ban on people from different households mixing in groups of more than six will not apply to education settings, Mr Johnson acknowledged that many students were “in the age bracket where we have seen the infection rates rise recently”.

“My message to students is simple,” Mr Johnson said. “Please, for the sake of your education and your parents’ and your grandparents’ health: wash your hands, cover your face, make space and don’t socially gather in groups of more than six, now and when term starts.”

Mr Johnson said that the Department for Education would be “publishing updated guidance for universities on how they can operate in a Covid-secure way, including a clear request not to send students home in the event of an outbreak, so as to avoid spreading the virus across the country”.

Mr Johnson added that he was “very grateful to universities for their continued cooperation and planning for the return of students”.

But Dr Grady described the plan as “ridiculously irresponsible” and said that Mr Johnson “cannot in good conscience tell students to go back to university when he knows more outbreaks are likely and that would result in them being locked down hundreds of miles from home”.

“The prime minister should be working to prevent unnecessary Covid outbreaks, not creating the conditions for them. Students and their parents will be rightly worried about being locked down in an unfamiliar area, possibly over Christmas,” she said.

“The sensible thing to do is to move most teaching online for this term and look to reopen campuses more widely only when that can be done safely.”

Dr Grady added that students should be released from unwanted accommodation contracts.

Earlier, Labour wrote 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 coverings indoors.

The Sage paper called for national oversight to coordinate institutions’ responses to outbreaks and for mass testing to be trialled to detect cases.

chris.havergal@timeshighereducation.com

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