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Matt Hancock: ‘I won’t rule out asking students to stay on campus for Christmas’

By Lucinda Cameron, PA Scotland

UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said he is not ruling out the prospect of asking students to stay on campus over Christmas, amid coronavirus clusters in university halls.

At the University of Glasgow, 124 students have tested positive and more than 600 are self-isolating across residences.

In Dundee, 500 Abertay University students were asked to self-isolate this week in student accommodation where three people have tested positive.

Scotland’s national clinical director, Professor Jason Leitch, warned he is “very concerned” at the situation.

In an interview on Times Radio, Mr Hancock was asked whether students would be encouraged to stay at university over Christmas.

He said: “We have said that students should stay at university until Christmas… We don’t rule out the suggestion you just made but I don’t want to have to say that. It is some time off.”

“I very much hope that we won’t have to say that, but, as I say, I don’t rule it out.”

“The important thing is in the short-term, students once they’ve gone to university should stay at university so as not to spread the disease.”

Downing Street also did not rule out such a move in the event of outbreaks.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “What is important in the event there is a specific outbreak on a campus is that steps are taken to ensure that the virus is not spread more widely.”

At the University of Aberdeen, 72 residents in Wavell House have been asked to self-isolate after a number of students tested positive.

The university said they are being supported with food and supplies and affected areas of the building are being given a deep clean.

Speaking on BBC Breakfast, Prof Leitch said: “I am concerned, very concerned, about higher and further education, I always have been.”

“I was concerned when it came back and I’m concerned now.”

“Predictably, we have cases. Every country in the world that has brought universities back has got cases.”

“We need to be very, very careful. Even though most of those cases will not get serious illness, some of them will and some of them will potentially spread it to the community.”

Prof Leitch later tweeted that students living in halls and flats cannot meet indoors with another household and that this includes their parents.

He wrote: “Was asked last night whether students in halls and flats can go back to parents’ homes.”

“To clarify, they are a separate household. There are exceptions, eg caring responsibilities, but the law is clear: they can’t meet indoors with another household – even mum and dad. Sorry.”

A spokesman for the University of Glasgow said: “We are aware of two significant clusters of positive cases of Covid-19 in our Murano Street and Cairncross residences, which we believe were largely due to social activity around September 12-14, the start of freshers’ week.”

“We are working closely with NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde’s public health team to manage these.”

The university tweeted that a mobile testing centre will be set up at Murano and students affected are being supported with food and other supplies.

Minutes from a meeting of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) earlier this month warned that the risks of outbreaks spilling over from higher education institutions are more likely towards the end of term when students return home, coinciding with Christmas and new year.

It warned this could pose a risk to families and local communities and said the situation will require “national oversight, monitoring and decision-making.”

Greg Fell, director of public health for Sheffield, told Times Radio: “Clearly there are going to be times when students do legitimately need to go home for all sorts of reasons.”

“But the recommendation is to stay in place, basically.”

The University and College Union said the UK Government must listen to the science, look at the experiences from other countries and tell universities to make online learning their default position immediately.

Its general secretary Jo Grady said: “Unless the Government acts now, thousands more students will move on to campus this weekend.”

“It is completely irresponsible to let students go back to university when outbreaks have already started.”

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