UK government was warned campus Covid outbreaks ‘very likely’

Sage document from last month says closing universities would have reduced transmission rates

October 13, 2020

UK government scientific advisers said last month that Covid outbreaks “are very likely in universities” and that closing universities would lower transmission rates, calling for “a clear statement about online teaching” to avoid institutions feeling commercially pressured into in-person teaching.

The warnings are included in discussions of the potential impact of different lockdown measures prepared for the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) and considered at its meeting on 21 September, before the start of term.

At that 21 September meeting, Sage recommended to the government that all university and college teaching should be online “unless face-to-face teaching is absolutely essential”, as has been reported.

The separate document looking at potential lockdown measures such as university closures in more detail, published on 12 October, may prompt further questions for the government as to why it did not follow advice to require the bulk of university teaching to be carried out online, and potentially stop students clustering in accommodation in university towns and cities.

The paper presented to Sage looks at the potential impact of different non-pharmaceutical interventions, such as stay-at-home orders, the closure of schools and the closure of universities.

It says that closing universities would have “moderate impact” on Covid transmission rates, adding there is “high confidence” in that assessment.

“Outbreaks are very likely in universities, given their size and the degree of close contact typical through shared living arrangements and while socialising and during lectures and practicals,” the paper says. “Universities [are] associated with outbreaks of other diseases (eg, mumps and meningitis) and [there is] clear evidence from the US of transmission of Covid in this setting.”

The paper adds that “closing universities [is] associated with a ~0.3 (0.2-0.5) reduction in the R number,” the reproduction number, the number of people that one infected person will pass the virus to, on average. That compares with a likely reduction in the R number of 0.1-0.2 from closing pubs and restaurants, as an example of another potential measure examined in the document.

“Mitigations short of [university] closure should include strong steer towards online learning for all but essential practical activities,” the paper continues.

In the category of “Direct impact on Covid deaths and severe disease”, it says: “Risk within the HE workforce more than the student body – as FE.”

Closing universities would have “less impact on broader health and well-being, [and] equity than closing schools or FE”, it also says.

On “implementation issues”, the paper says that “students may remain in term accommodation even if campus activities are closed, so social events could continue regardless”.

It would be “highly feasible for HE institutions to offer remote learning for many courses”, the paper continues.

“A clear statement about online teaching for FE and HE could avoid institutions believing that they have to maintain in-person tuition to avoid being at a competitive disadvantage,” it adds.

Andrew Hayward, director of the UCL Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care, who has attended Sage, told Times Higher Education that in towns and cities “which have a high number of students per head of population the impact [of universities] on case numbers could be quite marked and contribute to the need to move the area into local restrictions”.

He added: “There is an argument that if a sector-wide decision had been made before term started to not deliver face-to-face teaching, students could have opted to stay at home and would not be facing the high level of restrictions they are currently facing.”

But with students on campuses, university closures that would require students to return home are no longer a viable option, Professor Hayward said.

“Now that students have returned and there are high levels of transmission, asking students to return home would lead to transmission to their older and more at-risk family members and seed transmission around the country,” he continued.

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “A number of universities have increased their online teaching in response to local outbreaks. This is in line with government guidance which sets out four tiers of restrictions for education settings, in line with Sage advice.

“We understand this has been a very difficult time for students, which is why we prioritised their education and well-being so young people’s lives are not put on hold.”

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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