Government science advisers have warned that there is a “critical risk” of large numbers of infected higher education students seeding Covid-19 outbreaks across the UK when they return home at the end of term.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) has told ministers it is “highly likely” that universities in England will have “significant outbreaks” and that preparations should be made for all seeing at least some cases.
“A critical risk is a large number of infected students seeding outbreaks across the UK, influencing national transmission,” the advisors warned. “Peak health impacts of these new infections and outbreaks they spark would coincide with the Christmas and new year period, posing a significant risk to both extended families and local communities.”
Evidence reviewed by Sage found that the risk of major outbreaks when many students go back later this month is slim, because cases of Covid-19 are low and spread out. But it warned that large outbreaks may arise near the end of term, coinciding with Christmas and the new year, and continuing into 2021.
A document produced by Sage and released on 3 September warns that the outbreaks may be harder to spot and contain early because infections among young people are more likely to be asymptomatic. If the outbreaks are not controlled, students could spread them further and drive up both local and national transmission.
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.”
Although the Sage advice was focused on England, there are more than 2 million students enrolled in UK universities and other higher education institutions that are due to restart teaching this month. As witnessed in other countries, such as the US, student accommodation and bars are identified as likely hotspots for the spread of Covid-19.
But Julia Buckingham, president of the Universities UK group 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.”
According to the Sage group, higher education institutions may have to take “coordinated action” in November “to prevent seeding and disseminated outbreaks in December”. The scientists go on to state: “It is therefore important that a coordinated outbreak response strategy is urgently put in place.”
The strategy would connect colleges and universities with the government, the National Institute for Health Protection, local public health teams and local authorities to monitor new infections and rapidly contain fresh outbreaks.
Given the risk of outbreaks spilling out from universities and spreading nationally, the scientists stress the need for students to receive clear communication about self-isolating if they test positive.
The advisors estimate that less than one in five people who test positive self-isolate fully, and that number can be even lower among people earning less than £20,000 per year. Given the difficulty many students are likely to face if required to self-isolate, the document recommends that institutions make dedicated accommodation available to students and staff who need it, to minimise the virus spreading further in halls and shared houses.
The Department for Education is updating its coronavirus guidance to higher education institutions in England, for expected publication next week.
A DfE spokesperson 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.”
Grady said she welcomed the recommendations in the report 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 staff, students and the wider community is too important to gamble with,” Grady said.
In a separate paper, Sage said there was a significant risk to industry associated with further education colleges because of their “potential to facilitate wider transmission” between homes and workplaces.
“FE settings are diverse and highly connected with their local communities. A significant proportion of FE students are apprentices in workplaces, creating connectivity between the FE providers and multiple other organisations. An outbreak associated with FE poses a risk for industry,” the paper said.