The rising Covid-19 problem at universities has been made worse by the Government’s “incompetence” over A-level results, the leader of the Liberal Democrats has said.
Sir Ed Davey accused ministers of making the risk of coronavirus infection “worse” for thousands of students across the country as they prepare to start the new academic year.
The University of Liverpool earlier this week confirmed there were already 87 confirmed cases of Covid-19 among students and staff on campus before the autumn term had even begun, and the Financial Times reported that universities in Manchester have also recorded cases, while Scottish higher education establishments are fighting to control the number of cases.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock this week refused to rule out asking students to stay at their university accommodation for Christmas to prevent coronavirus spreading to older relatives.
But ex-cabinet minister Sir Ed said ministers should look at their own performance, blaming the sudden changes to the way the exam results were worked out for producing an influx of numbers enrolling at university this year.
Ministers U-turned on a decision to deploy a “mutant algorithm” – the description given to it by the Prime Minister – and instead use teacher predictions for grades after exams were cancelled, in a move that boosted pupil results.
Speaking to the PA news agency, Sir Ed said scientists would need to look “very carefully” at whether students should stay put at Christmas.
He added: “What’s really worried me is the way the Government has made this problem far worse.
“If you remember they completely messed up the A-level exams, it was a total fiasco, and that meant that more people have gone to university than is normal and the universities – who were getting ready, who were making their campuses and their accommodation safe – then suddenly had this massive influx.
“And the Government really hasn’t reached out to help universities and protect those students, so I’m afraid the Government’s mistakes yet again, their incompetence, have made a difficult problem worse.”
Sir Ed spent Friday morning meeting traders in St Albans in Hertfordshire – home to one of the rare success stories for his party at the December election, with Daisy Cooper MP defeating the city’s Tory incumbent – about how they are encouraging shoppers back amid a second wave of coronavirus infections.
The 54-year-old, who was elected leader last month, said he had “never seen such anxiety” among business owners and the workforce due to the hit Covid has wreaked on the economy.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak this week announced a wage subsidy scheme to replace the furlough programme in November but Sir Ed said he feared the new support package did not go “anywhere near far enough”.
“I’d actually point out the self-employed, where there were a million people excluded from the previous help packages – they’re still getting nothing,” said Sir Ed.
“And then you look at pubs and restaurants, you look at nurseries for kids, you look at the events sector, the sport, the tourism sector – they’re all on their knees.
“I really don’t think the Government is offering anything for them.”
Sir Ed is due to give his first leader’s speech at the Lib Dems’ “virtual” conference on Monday.
He said his message to members was the party needed to “wake up” after three “very disappointing” elections.
The Lib Dems had 57 Commons seats when Nick Clegg formed a coalition government with the Tories in 2010.
But those numbers were slashed in the proceeding election and in December under Jo Swinson’s leadership they secured only 11 MPs.
“Let’s make no bones about it – people clearly don’t think we’re on their side, that we’ve got their backs and I’m determined that we turn that round,” Sir Ed added.
Ms Swinson’s flagship policy last winter was to block Brexit by revoking Article 50 if the Lib Dems won an outright majority.
But Sir Ed has signalled that campaigns to reverse Brexit or even hold a second referendum will be off the cards before the next poll in 2024, with coronavirus and its after-effects to be the number one issue.
“We have the biggest health crisis for a century. We have the biggest economic recession which might turn out to be the deepest for 300 years,” he said, speaking in a pub beer garden in the historic city.
“I think politicians should be focused on that – that’s what people are telling me.”
As Sir Ed, a father of two, weighs up the evolving policy positions of his party, he confirmed family life was in a “much more settled position” having previously passed up standing for leader in 2017 due to needing to put his family first.
Before a subsequent house move, he and wife Emily were driving for an hour to take their son John, who is severely disabled, to school.
He said caring for his son was “almost a full-time job” and that he had to “focus on my family and put them first”.
“But now we’re in a much more settled position – there’s a lot of caring I have to do obviously with my wife Emily because John can’t walk or talk and he needs 24/7 care,” he added.
“But we’ve now got ourselves sorted and I’m sure we can manage and I’ve got the huge support from my wife, which I’m very grateful for.”