As part of a promise to ensure students can return home this Christmas, ministers are preparing plans to place universities in England in lockdown for two weeks with students told to remain on campus and all teaching to be carried out online.
The plan would see universities enter lockdown from 8 December until 22 December, after which all students would be allowed to return to their home towns.
Infection rates in a number of university areas are significantly higher among students than in the general population and government’s scientific advisers are therefore understandably concerned about community transmission triggered by students returning home.
Despite the concern, Boris Johnson and the UK government are pressing ahead with the plan after promising “that every student will be able to spend Christmas with their family” and are set to hold talks with representatives of Universities UK and other higher education leaders.
Many universities are concerned about the effect the government’s proposals will have on their timetables and teaching schedules and also question the idea of putting so many students on the public transport network on the same day.
Leaders also say they do not have the power to force students to self-isolate and fear the two-week period would create a surge in cases if students have nothing to do other than socialise.
Five universities in the UK have reported more than 1,000 confirmed COVID-19 infections including Manchester and Sheffield. Meanwhile there have been more than 600 cases among students and staff at the University of Birmingham within the past two weeks.
Jo Grady, the general secretary of the University and College Union, said the government’s plans risked being “unworkable and chaotic” while also urging for “focus on the here and now.” Continuing, Grady said the government “should be talking about getting people home now, not in two months’ time,”
Scientific advisers have recommended higher education teaching should be online unless in person instruction is “absolutely essential” until transmission rates fall. In light of this, it is understood that at least one university in England is considering allowing students to remain at home in January and study remotely.
In Northern Ireland, the executive has announced that universities should “deliver distance learning to the maximum extent possible” during a four week partial lockdown starting Friday.
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