Plans to create a travel window for students to return home for Christmas are “full of holes,” the government said.
Universities in England have been told to switch from face-to-face tuition to online tuition by early December and set staggered departure dates between December 3rd and 9th so families can reunite.
Jo Grady, Secretary General of the University and College Union, highlighted the tight timeframe for a mass movement of people, adding, “Just a week for around a million students traveling across the country leaves little room for error.”
The government said that Covid-19 tests will be offered to as many students as possible before they travel home, but building testing capacity will be a “massive endeavor,” a Durham University dean said.
Students will have ample time to complete the self-isolation period and return home for Christmas if they test positive for Covid-19 before the travel window.
However, if a student chooses to stay on campus later in the month, they must remain in their student accommodation in self-isolation for 10 days if they test positive for coronavirus.
Universities are asked to provide additional help and support – including affordable groceries – to students staying on campus through Christmas.
Dr. Grady said the plans are “full of holes” and “raise as many questions as they answer”.
She added, “If the government instead ordered universities to go online now, it would provide a lot more time to postpone the movement of students and better protect the health of staff, students and their larger communities.”
The “Student Travel Window” begins with the UK lockdown ending on December 2nd, and it is hoped that this will reduce the risk of transmission.
Dr. Jenny Harries, Assistant Medical Director, said: “The mass movement of students across the country at the end of the semester is a really significant challenge within the Covid-19 response.
“The measures announced today will help minimize this risk and help students get home to their families as safely as possible for Christmas. It is important that students follow directions to protect their families and the communities they return to. “
Durham University is already piloting rapid Covid-19 testing – including identifying people who may be infectious but are not symptomatic.
The lateral flow tests, which give results in just 30 minutes, use a nasal and throat swab and are self-administered.
After a voluntary pilot project, the university is now examining whether it is possible to carry out mass tests throughout the facility before Christmas.
Regarding the government’s plans to establish mass testing capacity on campus, Professor Jacqui Ramagge, Dean of Science at Durham University and project sponsor, said, “I don’t think very many [universities] I’ll be prepared for this because I think it’s a huge undertaking. “
Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said, “We know Christmas will feel different and after this incredibly difficult year we are fulfilling our commitment to bring students back to their loved ones as safely as possible for the holidays.
“We worked very hard to find a way to do this for students while limiting the risk of transmission.
“Now it is important that they follow these measures to protect their families and communities, and that universities ensure that students receive the support they need for wellbeing, especially those staying on campus during recess.”