Scientists fear ‘big waves’ of Covid if campuses reopen this term

Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies members say that teaching should stay online until Easter

January 5, 2021
Door closed due to Covid-19
Source: iStock

University teaching in the UK should stay online throughout the spring term following the rapid spread of the new strain of coronavirus, scientific advisers to the country’s government have told Times Higher Education.

Students studying medicine and health-related subjects, education and social work returned to campus this week but plans for the return of other learners have now been pushed back to “at least mid-February” under England’s new lockdown.

Members of the Westminster government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) said that ministers should accept that campus life was likely to prove incompatible with the new variant of Covid-19, at least until a significant proportion of the population has been vaccinated.

Michael Tildesley, associate professor in infectious disease modelling at the University of Warwick and a member of Sage’s modelling subgroup, warned that preliminary research indicated that “all that the staggering [of students’ return to campuses] will do is spread out your infection throughout the term”.

“Ultimately, if you are having all students on campus, even if that happens over the space of a month or months, all you’ll get is a slightly elongated epidemic,” he said.

The return of students to campuses last term was associated with large Covid-19 outbreaks on some campuses.

“This time, particularly with a new variant that we know is more transmissible and so spreads more rapidly, you could see big waves of infection sweeping through campus,” said Dr Tildesley, who added that it was “a bit odd” that students were already returning to campuses when many schools – which should be the priority – remained closed.

Stephen Reicher, Bishop Wardlaw professor of social psychology at the University of St Andrews and a member of Sage’s behavioural science advisory group, said that the new variant meant making online teaching the default was “more urgent than ever”.

Sage modelling “shows that control of the new variant is impossible without addressing both university and school mixing”, he said. “What is more, we can connect the two. If universities go online, local schools could use university space to allow them to distance classes: a win-win outcome,” he said.

UCL has already broken with the government guidance and told students that there will be no in-person teaching until 22 February at the earliest, warning that this may need to be extended throughout the term. The institution referenced the fact that “in London, the number of cases is rising rapidly and our partner hospitals are at or beyond their capacity”.

The University and College Union has called on the government to halt all non-essential in-person teaching until Easter.

Elizabeth Stokoe, professor of social interaction at Loughborough University and a member of the Independent Sage group of scientists, said that this was the right approach.

“Given that the vaccine is coming, but many at universities will be well down the priority list, that cases are surging now and NHS capacity is at breaking point, [universities] should be more online than they were last term,” Professor Stokoe said. “We knew what would happen last term and to repeat it seems reckless.”

However, the experts agreed that without additional government funding, universities have been put in an “unpalatable position”.

“In making online the default, institutions need to ensure all students have the necessary computers and wi-fi and they need to ensure that students are not penalised financially, eg, by having to pay for cancelled accommodation. This in turn requires government support for institutions,” Professor Reicher said.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Scientists fear ‘big waves’ of new variant if universities reopen this term

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