Guidance for students' return home for Christmas announced


Mass testing and a 'travel window' after lockdown could help students return home for the holidays

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By Emily Hewat and Megan Thornberry

The government has now released plans on how students will be able to return home for Christmas after lockdown ends on the 2 December.

It has been decided that students will be allowed to return home between the 3 and 9 December in what is being considered a 'travel window'. Universities will have to move all teaching online for the remainder of the first term after the travel window, and will work closely with neighbouring institutions to reduce pressure on transport systems.

This comes after the announcement that there could be mass Covid testing for students at English universities before the Christmas break, according to a letter from the Universities Minister to vice-chancellors.

The letter proposes a week of Covid testing beginning on 30 November. In the letter, shown to the BBC, there were claims students will receive fast testing and “results within the hour”.

These tests would overlap with the end of the ongoing lockdown, allowing students who test negative to return home during the first week of December. Upon testing positive, students must be retested and will have to isolate if infectious. Moving all teaching online by 9 December would ensure students can isolate and still have time to return home for Christmas.

Pilots for rapid, self-administered testing have already begun at Durham and De Montfort Universities.

In the letter, Universities Minister Michelle Donelan writes that although this type of test “does not detect all positive cases, it works extremely well in finding cases with higher viral loads - which is those who are most infectious.”

These mass tests would aim to prevent the 1.2 million students expecting to travel home at the end of this term from furthering the spread of the virus. The plans have been made in response to concerns raised by Sage scientific advisors who have warned of the “significant risk” caused by high levels of student travel in a short space of time.

Accompanying the letter is a timetable showing plans for universities to be prepared for “pre end-of-term testing” by 15 November, ready to begin testing the next week. The tests will be given to the universities for free, but universities must have a location at which thousands of students can be tested rapidly.

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Jenny Harries stated that "The measures announced today will help minimise the risk and help students get back to their homes as safely as possible for Christmas. It is crucial that students follow the guidance in order to protect their families and the communities they return to."

However, criticism has been made by universities about the lateness of these new proposals, being so close to the end of term. More questions are expected to be raised about the capacity of universities to facilitate mass-testing on short notice, and on how students who do need to isolate can return home after the travel window ends.