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More than 50 universities across UK have Covid-19 cases – analysis

NHS staff handing out test kits to Glasgow University students as they arrive for testing at a pop up test centre in Glasgow. More than 50 universities in the UK have confirmed cases of coronavirus as thousands of students return to campus. Photo by Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

By Eleanor Busby and Tom Pilgrim, PA

More than 50 universities in the UK have confirmed cases of coronavirus as thousands of students return to campus.

Over 2,500 Covid-19 cases have been identified among university students and staff, a survey suggests.

A surge in coronavirus cases in recent weeks has led to thousands of students having to self-isolate in their halls at some universities – including Manchester Metropolitan and Glasgow University.

Northumbria University confirmed late on Friday afternoon that 770 students have tested positive for Covid-19 and they are all now self-isolating.

There have been more than 200 cases at the University of Sheffield and 177 University of Liverpool staff and students have tested positive, according to a PA news agency survey which contacted 140 institutions.

Around 56 universities across the UK have had at least one confirmed case of Covid-19, an analysis of university responses and media reports suggests.

More than 2,600 positive cases of Covid-19 have been identified at these universities, the analysis suggests.

The findings come as the University of Manchester – where there have been 382 cases of Covid-19 since September 21 – apologised for “conflicting information” given to students from some residential staff about isolation.

The BBC reported that students were told that a member of an isolating home could go to the shops for food if they could not get deliveries, and they could use laundry services as long as they wore a mask.

A university spokesman said: “The safety and wellbeing of our students is our main concern. We are proud of the work carried out by our Residential Life Team who live in halls alongside our students.

“If some members of that team have issued conflicting information, we apologise. All students have now been sent a single clear message.”

The highest number of cases among students and staff appear to be in northern cities in England as well as Scottish universities – which reopened first – but there have been cases at institutions across the UK.

There have been 47 cases among students at Oxford Brookes university, while at Sussex University one member of staff and 10 students are self-isolating after testing positive for Covid-19, the PA survey shows.

But not all cases among students and staff have been reported “on campus”. Some have occurred in local communities or in private halls of residence.

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, vice president for higher education at the National Union of Students (NUS), said: “The rise of Covid rates at universities needs drastic action now.

“It is deeply irresponsible to continue with business as usual and the government and universities must be honest with students about what the pandemic can mean for their university experience.”

She said: “Fully accessible online education must become a reality immediately and we need digital investment at a national scale to make this happen.”

Speaking at an independent Sage meeting on Friday, Professor Christina Pagel from University College London (UCL) said: “I think we have to acknowledge that students need to be supported at university and it shouldn’t kind of be a blame game.”

She added: “If you stuck me in the house with seven strangers, I’m much more likely to get Covid than I am where I am now, and I think that has to be acknowledged.”

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), said: “It is a stressful and difficult time for students at the moment and no one would have wished this particular start to the academic year.

“But we also need to recognise that the number of students with positive tests and also the number self-isolating is a tiny proportion of the total UK student body.

“Universities do need to support students that are self-isolating and, much – but not all – of the time, that support seems to be getting to where it is needed.”

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), said: “It is an outrage that ministers and universities spent the summer talking up a student experience that the science and staff said was never likely.”

She added: “The priority for ministers now must be a support package that underwrites lost income for universities and provides vital protection for staff and students.”

A Universities UK (UUK) spokeswoman said: “The priority for all universities is to support the health and wellbeing of their students, staff and local communities and ensure that students can continue with their education during this pandemic.

“This is a very challenging time with Covid-19 cases rising in many communities.

“All universities are working in partnership with their local authorities and public health bodies to adapt to the changing local circumstances, to effectively implement outbreak response plans to protect their communities and to continue to ensure measures are in place to reduce risks.

“Where students are self-isolating, universities are taking care of both their physical and emotional wellbeing including access to testing and health care, mental health support, continuing learning online, safe social interaction, food deliveries, laundry, and financial support.”

A Government spokesperson said: “We recognise this has been a really challenging time for students, particularly for those having to self-isolate at the start of their university journey. We have asked universities to make sure those that are isolating have all the support they need.

“Universities are well prepared for a local outbreak, and we have worked with them to help draw up plans for measures in the event of positive cases on campus, or a rise in cases locally.”