Significant outbreaks of coronavirus linked to universities are “highly likely” and they risk amplifying the transmission of the virus across the country, Government scientific advisers have said.
Social interactions and accommodation are likely to be a “high-risk environment” for transmission to occur – and asymptomatic cases among students may make it harder to detect, they warned.
In a document published by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), scientists have suggested that wider-scale testing, combined with action places, may help control campus outbreaks.
Wearing face coverings in campus buildings and reducing in-person interactions may mitigate the transmission of Covid-19, the advice suggests.
It says: “Students who are residents in university accommodation should be segmented as far as possible to co-locate courses or year groups, to minimise networks between different parts of an institution.”
It said: “There is a significant risk that HE (Higher Education) could amplify local and national transmission, and this requires national oversight.”
The paper, which sets out the principles for managing transmission, adds: “A critical risk is a large number of infected students seeding outbreaks across the UK, influencing national transmission.”
There is a small risk of this at the start of term, it says, but there is a “more substantial risk” at the end of term if the infection spreads in universities.
The advisers warned outbreaks would coincide with Christmas and new year posing “a significant risk to both extended families and local communities.”
Universities should consider providing dedicated accommodation facilities to enable students who test positive to effectively isolate and minimise the risk of an outbreak, the scientists said.
The document warns: “Disagreements, mistakes and transgressions will happen. Preventing anger, confrontation and stigmatisation will be important.”
On the Sage report, Professor Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of Brunel University London, said: “It is reassuring to note that many of the recommendations have already been addressed by universities in their planning for the start of the new term.
“Higher education institutions are aware of the risk of cases emerging on campus and that is why they have been working hard over many months and investing considerable resource and expertise into planning for all scenarios.
“It is vital that the sector and local health and public bodies work together over the new term to develop robust plans for managing outbreaks in university towns.”
Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: “This report is sobering reading and brings the dangers associated with reopening university campuses into sharp focus. It exposes how wrong it was to try and pretend it would be almost business as usual. The worry now is how ill-prepared the Government and universities appear to be.
“We welcome the recommendations for better testing and tracing, and for universities to work with staff and students on guidance. This report adds further weight to our call that online teaching must be universities’ default position.
“What we really need now is a serious response from universities and Government – The health of university staf, students and the wider community is too important to gamble with. This is not business as usual.”
A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “The safety and wellbeing of university students and staff is always a priority and these findings from Sage underpin the protective measures being taken to open universities safely for students, staff and local communities.
“We have already published guidance on reopening higher education buildings and campuses, and will update this shortly to reflect Sage’s advice, to help universities prepare to open safely.”