Covid cases rise sharply at some UK universities as students head home


Fears mass exodus before Christmas break could fuel spread of Omicron variant

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Sally Weale Education correspondent

Thu 16 Dec 2021 06.00 GMT

The number of Covid cases has risen sharply at some universities as about a million students begin to head home for the Christmas break, prompting fears that the mass migration could fuel the spread of the virus.

Students have been urged to take Covid tests before they leave their university to travel to see their families – the vast majority on public transport – and again before they return in the new year, as well as getting their booster vaccinations.

But with case numbers increasing rapidly on some campuses, including Omicron infections, there are reports that students have decided to leave early to limit the risk of having to isolate over Christmas away from home.

Loughborough University and Imperial College London have moved learning online for most students for the last few days of term after a significant uptick in cases. Elsewhere, universities have urged staff and students to either cancel or scale back planned Christmas celebrations to limit mixing.

About 30 universities finished at the end of last week, but for most term will end on Friday and universities are following government guidance to retain face-to-face teaching to the very end, despite the prime minister’s wider call for people to work from home in light of the rapid spread of Omicron.

Rowland Kao, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh who contributes to the Spi-M modelling subgroup of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said outbreaks at universities had not been as severe as last year.

“However, any travel carries some risk and in particular has the potential for greater exposure during travel and also, importantly, to introduce mixing between age groups that would not be there at other times of the year.

“Thus students travelling should be cautious in regards to both physical distancing measures and with the use of lateral flow tests to try to detect presymptomatic infections.”

The University of Oxford reported a significant increase in infections, with more than 100 positive Covid-19 cases in the week ending 10 December and a 14% positivity rate, while the University of Sheffield reported a sharp rise to 81 cases among students on 14 December in a seven-day rolling average of 27.

Despite the increasing numbers there are no plans for staggered departures in December and for the January return, as were implemented last year to try to reduce the number of students travelling on the same day.

The government is instead relying on testing and high levels of vaccination among students. According to the Office for National Statistics, 90% of higher education students have had at least one vaccine dose, and 78% have had two. Everyone aged over 18 is expected to be offered a booster vaccine by the end of December.

The University and College Union (UCU), which represents university staff, urged the government to allow universities to move online for the final week of term, rather than risk unnecessary infections and isolation over Christmas.

“Sadly, as was the case last year, the government and the vast majority of institutions have ignored warnings from staff and unions and taken unnecessary risks,” said the UCU general secretary, Jo Grady. “With such poor leadership, it is little wonder some students have already voted with their feet and returned home for the year.

“The challenge now is delivering a safe return to learning in January. Universities must carry out new risk assessments before the start of the next academic term and ensure appropriate mitigations are in place to keep students and staff safe.”

A Department for Education spokesperson called on students to get their booster jab and keep testing regularly. “To minimise the spread of Covid over the holidays we are urging every student heading home to get tested before they leave and to test before they go back in the new term, and we are working closely with the higher education sector to make sure students can continue to benefit from in-person teaching.”

Universities UK, which represents 140 universities in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, added: “Universities are working closely with the health authorities and relevant government departments and will follow the most up-to-date public health advice to help keep the university community safe.”