The Government should stagger the return of students to universities in the new year or risk spikes in coronavirus infections, Labour has said.
The party is calling on ministers to allow students on placements – or whose face-to-face teaching is essential – to return to campus first, with other students following later in the term.
The Government must urgently set out its plans for January so students and universities have enough time to prepare for a safe return to campus, Labour said, adding that the delay was “irresponsible”.
Shadow minister for universities Emma Hardy said ministers should avoid a mass migration of students over a short timeframe after the festive break.
The plea comes ahead of the seven-day “travel window” in England – where university students can return home to their families for Christmas from Thursday until December 9.
The National Union of Students (NUS) has warned that students will struggle to “comply fully” with self-isolation rules if they test positive for Covid-19 before Christmas due to a lack of financial support.
In a letter to Universities Minister Michelle Donelan, Ms Hardy said: “The Government have said nothing about the return of students to universities in January.
“This urgently needs to be addressed to ensure the movement of almost two million students across the UK does not lead to spikes in infection rates of the kind seen in September.
“The Government was late in realising there was a crisis in September, and it is deeply concerning that your department does not appear to have learned from this experience.”
Labour is also calling on ministers to set out plans for the arrival of international students in January so they are supported in quarantine periods.
In the letter, Ms Hardy warned: “Thousands of international students should be arriving in the UK in January, but global coverage of the Government’s poor handling of the pandemic will cause many to see coming here as a risk that they wish to reconsider.
“It is deeply concerning that the Government’s incompetence is putting the reputation of our world-leading universities at risk. A decline in international student numbers would have serious negative consequences for universities.”
Ms Donelan has said the Government will look to utilise mass testing in the new year to make the return to higher education as safe as possible.
But Government guidance on how universities should bring their students back to campus in January has yet to be released.
Ms Hardy said: “Students are about to leave universities for Christmas holidays without knowing when or how they will go back.
“Guidance on their safe return must be published without delay to give universities time to put processes in place.
“The Government should adopt Labour’s call to stagger their return and work with universities to deliver this.”
A Government spokeswoman said: “We understand this has been a very difficult time for students, which is why we have prioritised their education and wellbeing from the start of this pandemic, by supporting universities to provide a blend of online and in-person learning in a Covid-secure way.
“We have set out plans, delivering on our commitment to enable students to return home for the Christmas holidays while minimising the risk of transmission.
“We will provide further guidance in due course on the spring term, which will look to use mass testing on offer and consider the latest scientific advice.”