Christmas return plans for university students ‘riddled with holes’, as questions raised over mass-testing feasibility

Universities have faced coronavirus outbreaks on campus this term (AFP via Getty Images)
Universities have faced coronavirus outbreaks on campus this term (AFP via Getty Images)

Government plans for students to return home for Christmas are “riddled with holes”, a union has said, while the promised mass-testing programme does not yet exist. 

One student told The Independent he was “very angry” at being told to leave university much earlier than planned, after a week-long window for travel was announced. 

Students will be allowed to travel on staggered departure dates between 3 and 9 December in order to spend the Christmas holidays with their families under the much-anticipated plans.

The government has promised to “work closely with universities to establish mass-testing” ahead of the travel window — with priority given to those in hotspot areas. But the requisite capacity does not yet exist, and one insitution has warned it will require a “massive undertaking” to install it. 

Michelle Donelan, the universities minister, said it had been a “very difficult” term for students and that the government wanted to allow them to go home for the holidays.

However, a leading union said the plans “raise as many questions as they answer”.

“The government has finally announced plans for students to return home before Christmas, but they are riddled with holes,” Jo Grady from the Union and College Union (UCU) said. 

The general secretary added: “Allowing just a week for around one million students to travel across the country leaves little room for error.”

Student Barnaby Fournier told The Independent being told to leave during that period in early December was “another blow”. 

“I’m personally very angry at the decision to send us home early,” he said, adding he was hoping to stay for a couple more weeks.

“I doubt we will get accomodation refunds for the time we’re sent home,” the University of Manchester student said. “Our tuition fee also pays for things like access to library study spaces which we don’t have at home.”

Universities have been told to move all learning online after 9 December, so students can carry on with their studies away from campus after going home during the travel window.

“Some of us simply are unable to work at home, it’s just the wrong environment,” Mr Fournier said.

The Department for Education (DfE) said mass-testing would also be part of plans for a Christmas return, and the government would be working closely with universities to establish capacity for this. 

Ms Donelan told Sky News that the travel window from 3-9 December meant that there was enough time for students to isolate if they tested positive for coronavirus and then go home in time for Chrismas. 

However, the establishment of testing capacity will be a “massive undertaking”, an executive dean at Durham University warned.

The university is now exploring whether it is feasible to roll out mass testing across the whole institution before Christmas after a voluntary pilot into rapid coronavirus testing. 

On the government’s plans to establish mass testing capacity on campuses, Professor Jacqui Ramagge, executive dean and project sponsor, said: “I don’t think very many [universities] will be prepared for this.”

Meanwhile, the UCU said the plans for mass testing “come with immense practical challenges to overcome in a very short window”. 

Under the government guidance, tests will be offered to as many students as possible before they travel home for Christmas, with universities in areas of high prevalence prioritised, and those who get positive results having to isolate for 10 days. 

The National Union for Students welcomed the approach over testing, with the group’s national president saying it “equips students with the knowledge to make informed decisions about travel ahead of the winter break based on individual risk” rather than “blanket rules”. 

Larissa Kennedy added: “The government must now ensure that universities have enough resource to cope with the mass demand for this testing.”

Ms Donelan, the universities minister, said: “We know this Christmas will feel different, and following this incredibly difficult year we are delivering on our commitment to get students back to their loved ones as safely as possible for the holidays.

“We have worked really hard to find a way to do this for students, while limiting the risk of transmission.

The minister added: “Now it is vital they follow these measures to protect their families and communities, and for universities to make sure students have all the wellbeing support they need, especially those who stay on campus over the break.”

Additional reporting by Press Association

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