Plans to introduce mass testing for Covid-19 at universities ahead of Christmas present huge logistical challenges and risk leaving students “in limbo”, a union has warned.
The University and College Union (UCU) has called on the Government to support students who want to learn remotely in the new year and help release them from accommodation contracts, to reduce the risk of a “mass outbreak”.
It comes after a letter from the universities minister, seen by the BBC, suggested that mass coronavirus testing for students in England could begin at the end of this month to allow them to return home for Christmas.
The letter, sent to vice-chancellors from Michelle Donelan, reportedly proposes a week of mass testing, between November 30 and December 6.
But the UCU has called on the Government to move all non-essential in-person teaching online now, to lower the risk of transmission on campuses during lockdown and to help thousands of students to return home safely.
Jo Grady, general secretary of the UCU, said: “We hope the Government is able to properly oversee mass testing of students at the end of term, but there are huge hurdles to overcome to manage this process properly and not leave staff and students stuck in limbo.
“Some of our concerns include whether all universities will be able to take part, how the tests will be administered, who will cover the costs, what the plan is for students who commute to campus daily from their family home, and how students who aren’t able to be tested will travel home safely.”
Ms Grady added: “[The Government] must also support students to learn remotely next term and work with universities to help release any students who wish to remain at home from their accommodation contracts.
“We cannot risk another mass outbreak due to further government incompetence.”
On Monday, the Prime Minister said guidance for university students wishing to return home for Christmas will be issued “very shortly” to ensure young people do not infect elderly family members.
Guidance from the Department for Education (DfE) last week told university students not to leave their term-time address to return home between November 5 and December 2.
Boris Johnson has suggested mass testing could be rolled out to university students to curb the spread of coronavirus.
Mr Johnson urged residents of Liverpool to take part in the mass testing pilot scheme in the city, and he said the Government was distributing “hundreds of thousands” of rapid lateral flow coronavirus tests to local authorities across England and the devolved administrations.
He told the Downing Street press conference: “We’re also working with universities to establish, as soon as possible, similar mass-testing capacity for students up and down the country.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), said: “Mass testing offers a way to let students return home without putting other family members at unknown levels of risk. I won’t be the only person who is pleased to hear that our testing capacity is now enabling this to happen.
“Universities will be keen to work with government and public health authorities to ensure its smooth operation.”
But he added: “Of course, mass testing is not the only thing that needs to happen to ensure a smooth and safe end of term.
“We also need to do things like stagger the days when students return home, as we need to avoid having one or two big days when hundreds of thousands of parents simultaneously descend on institutions to pick up their loved ones.”
A Universities UK (UUK) spokeswoman said: “We welcome the government’s ambition to enhance testing capacity for university students and staff, and are pleased that universities have helped shape their plans by sharing experience from their own testing regimes and participating in pilots.
“A more effective test, track and trace system in higher education will help limit transmission, assist in rapid response to outbreaks and support universities to continue offering face-to-face learning and support for student welfare in a low risk and physically-distanced way.”
But she added that universities now need clear assurance of the effectiveness of the tests, as well as further details from the government on specific responsibilities for a major roll-out of asymptomatic testing to be successful.