Universities are taking multiple steps to minimise the risk of spreading coronavirus as students head back to campus amid warnings of “significant outbreaks”, an academic has said.
Government advisers in the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) outlined concerns on Friday over how the virus could spread into local communities in university towns and cities when students return for the autumn term.
They fear universities could become “amplifiers” for Covid-19 due to increased social interactions and through large numbers arriving at university accommodation, but education leaders have pledged to combat the risk through measures including their own test and trace systems.
Dr Mike Tildesley, an associate professor at the University of Warwick and expert in infection modelling, told the BBC: “What universities are trying to do is trying to minimise that risk so strategies such as grouping students together within year groups and within courses so that we can try to minimise that risk and also putting in place local testing and tracing policies so if we do start to see outbreaks, we can try to manage them as rapidly as possible.”
Dr Tildesley said small group teaching was still happening in person, but would take place inside large lecture theatres to allow for social distancing.
He continued: “Certain parts of the courses will be taking place online, there’s an awful lot of virtual teaching that will be taking place in the first term, it’s certainly not ideal I think for the student experience… but these large lectures really do represent a significant risk.
“When the pandemic started universities closed and now we’re starting to reopen but what we’re doing is trying to put in all of these measures to try and minimise risk.”
In a document published on Friday, Sage scientists said: “There is a significant risk that HE (Higher Education) could amplify local and national transmission, and this requires national oversight.”
Concerns have also been raised that students could spread the virus when they travel long distances from their family homes to campuses.
Dr Tildesley said: “What we need to remember is at the moment in the country we’re dealing with a series of really local outbreaks that we’re trying to manage with local control policies.
“But when students come to university, potentially they’re travelling across the country and possibly they may be moving from parts of the country where there’s a lot of infection to parts of the country where there may not be as much infection.”
The academic added this could have a “knock-on effect” and prompt a wave of infection, particularly as students return home to their families for Christmas.
While most students have a very low risk of having severe symptoms, as they return home for the festive season they may interact with elderly relatives or vulnerable people with underlying conditions.
Dr Tildesley added suggestions students should stay in their university lodgings over the Christmas break would be “extremely difficult” to enforce.
Sage has advised universities to consider providing dedicated accommodation facilities to enable students who test positive to effectively isolate and minimise the risk of an outbreak.
Universities have also been advised to work with local authorities in addition to conducting their own test and trace programmes.
Peter Openshaw, professor of experimental medicine, Imperial College London, said: “While universities conduct their own testing and contact tracing, isolation and health education strategies, it is vital that there is alignment and co-ordination with local borough public health officers to avoid duplication of effort and ensure a collaborative approach that takes advantage of the skills in both sectors.”