Government scientific advisors have warned that there is a "critical risk" that large numbers of infected college students will set off Covid-19 outbreaks across the UK when they return home at the end of the semester.
The Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) has told Ministers that it is "very likely" that universities in England will have "significant outbreaks" and that preparations should be made for at least some cases to occur.
"A critical risk is large numbers of infected students setting off outbreaks across the UK and affecting national transmission," the advisors warned. "The highest health impacts from these new infections and outbreaks they trigger would coincide with the Christmas and New Year periods and pose a significant risk to extended families and local communities."
Evidence verified by Sage found that with many students returning later this month, the risk of serious outbreaks is small, as Covid-19 cases are low and widespread. However, it warned that large outbreaks could occur towards the end of the semester, coinciding with Christmas and New Years and lasting through 2021.
A document prepared by Sage and published on September 3 warns that the outbreaks may be harder to spot and contain early on, as infections are more asymptomatic in young people. If the outbreaks are not controlled, students could spread them further and promote both local and national transmission.
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Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: “This report is sobering and highlights the dangers of reopening campuses. It shows how wrong it was to pretend it was almost the same as usual. The concern now is how ill-prepared the government and universities appear to be. "
Although the Sage Council focused on England, there are more than 2 million students enrolled in British universities and other higher education institutions due to return to teaching this month. As seen in other countries like the US, student accommodation and bars are identified as likely hotspots for the spread of Covid-19.
However, Julia Buckingham, President of Universities UK Group and Vice Chancellor of Brunel University London said: "It is reassuring to note that many of the recommendations have already been taken into account by universities in their planning for the start of the new semester."
According to the Sage group, higher education institutions may need to take “coordinated action” in November to “prevent the seed and spread of outbreaks in December”. The scientists continue: "It is therefore important that a coordinated strategy to respond to outbreaks is urgently put in place."
The strategy would connect colleges and universities with the government, the National Institute for Health Protection, local health teams and local authorities to monitor new infections and quickly contain new outbreaks.
Given the risk that outbreaks could originate from universities and spread nationally, the scientists stress that if they test positive, students must be given a clear message about self-isolation.
The counselors estimate that fewer than one in five people who fully test positive self-isolation, and that number may be even lower for those earning less than £ 20,000 a year. Given the difficulties many students are likely to face in having to self-isolate, the document recommends that institutions provide special housing to students and staff who need them to keep the virus from spreading in halls and shared apartments to minimize.
The Department of Education is updating its guidelines for coronavirus in higher education in England, which is expected to be released next week.
A DfE spokesperson said, “The safety and wellbeing of university students and staff is always a priority, and these findings from Sage underscore the safeguards being put in place to keep universities open to students, staff and local communities safely.
"We have already published guidelines on reopening college buildings and campuses and will be updating them shortly to take into account Sage's advice and help universities prepare for a safe reopening."
Grady welcomed the recommendations in the report for better testing and traceability, and for universities to work with staff and students to advise.
“This report reinforces our demand that online teaching be the standard position of universities. What we really need now is a serious response from universities and government. The health of college staff, students, and the wider community is too important to play with, ”Grady said.
In a separate paper, Sage said that there is a significant risk to industry related to continuing education colleges as they have the potential to allow wider transmission between households and workplaces.
“FE attitudes are diverse and closely related to their local communities. A significant proportion of the FE students are apprentices at workplaces, which creates a link between the FE providers and several other organizations. An FE-related outbreak poses a risk to the industry, ”the paper states.
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