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Universities could face pre-Christmas lockdown to allow festive getaway – report

Joe Giddens

By Alexander Britton and Eleanor Busby, PA

Universities in England could be instructed to switch from face-to-face teaching to online-only classes in early December, while a two-week lockdown will allow students to return home for Christmas, it has been reported.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson previously said plans are being put in place to allow students to return home safely for Christmas, with figures suggesting more than 60 universities have confirmed cases of Covid-19.

The lockdown across universities would take place from December 8 to 22, according to the Guardian, which said the plans are in their “early stages”.

But a scientist who advises the Government has suggested that imposing a two-week lockdown on universities before Christmas may come too late.

And University and College Union (UCU) general secretary Jo Grady has called the proposals “unworkable and chaotic”.

It came as new guidance suggests university students may be asked to attend seminars anonymously in an effort to frustrate attempts from foreign countries to monitor and ultimately stifle freedom of speech.

The guidelines by Universities UK (UUK), representing vice-chancellors, suggests students may be required to submit coursework anonymously to protect them from countries which apply laws beyond their borders.

On a potential two-week break for in-person lessons, Dr Ellen Brooks-Pollock, who sits on the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Our analysis suggests that reducing face-to-face teaching to essential teaching only does have the impact of slowing down the rate of spread and preventing more disseminated outbreaks.

“However it needs to happen early on in the outbreak because if infection is already widespread then having this quiet period at the end of term is unlikely to prevent outbreaks within halls of residence.

“Two weeks might be enough for students living in smaller households living with two or three other people but in these halls of residence where there’s really a lot of people living together it could just lead to an outbreak in those halls of residence.”

“And if there’s already disseminated infections, many of which are unobserved, two weeks wouldn’t be long enough at the end of term – it’s too late essentially.”

Responding to the potential plans, Dr Grady said: “This is an unworkable and chaotic set of measures that will be impossible to deliver or oversee.”

She added: “We should be talking about getting people home now, not in two months’ time.

“The mass relocation of over a million students is going to take time and serious resources, as is looking after them while they are forced into quarantine or lockdown.”

“This perverse obsession with Christmas is dangerous. Government must focus on the here & now,” Dr Grady tweeted.

UK Education Secretary Gavin Williamson previously suggested students may be required to self-isolate at the end of the current university term in order to safely return home to be with their families at Christmas.

Speaking last month in the Commons, the minister told MPs it is “essential” measures are put in place to ensure students can be with their loved ones during the festive period while “minimising the risk of transmission” of Covid-19.

The UK Department for Education (DfE) said details on the return home would be set out “shortly”.

A spokeswoman added: “All students will be able to go home at Christmas if they so choose.

“However, if students are travelling home, we must ensure they do so in a way which minimises the risks of spreading the virus, and the date when universities must stop in-person teaching will be an important part of this.”

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