Students will return to campuses in January using mass testing of the sort to be deployed next month before they go home for Christmas during a travel window, the universities minister has said.
A mass exodus will take place on staggered departure dates set by universities from 3 December to 9 December after England’s four-week lockdown, under plans announced by the Department for Education (DfE) on Tuesday night.
Students testing positive would need to remain in self-isolation for 10 days.
But the universities minister, Michelle Donelan, sought to downplay concerns raised by experts about the reliability of the plan’s self-administered lateral flow tests (LFT), and the short period of time in which testing will take place.
The LFTs, which can deliver a result in as little as 30 minutes, are rapid but do not necessarily detect as many infected people as the PCR testing used at NHS sites, warned Dr Ellen Brooks Pollock, a lecturer in infectious disease modelling at the University of Bristol who has led research into Covid-19 among students.
“Although a positive test is a good indicator of infection a negative test does not guarantee that you are not infected so you might have a lower viral load or be at an earlier or later stage of infection,” she told the BBC’s Today programme.
“We saw high rates of infection in university students at the beginning of term and that number has fallen but we can’t really disentangle testing behaviour with true infection rate. It’s because the majority of students don’t have the typical Covid symptoms so there could potentially be high rates of undisclosed infections, which obviously poses a risk to their parents and grandparents but also to seeding infections in new areas.”
Prof Jacqui Ramagge, an executive dean for science at Durham University who has been overseeing a pilot project there for rapid Covid-19 testing, added that the danger of failing to pick up students who could become infectious later could be mitigated by taking a number of tests over a few days.
Asked about this, Donelan replied: “So that isn’t correct in terms of this lateral flow rapid test that we have. It is highly reliable. The number of false positives or false negatives are extremely low and as I’ve said our plan outlined today isn’t contingent on testing. That is complimentary to the plan. That is an additional element of it.”
But she also went on during a round of broadcast interviews to admit that the risks could not be eliminated, telling Sky news: “We are in the midst of a pandemic. What are talking about here is managing and reducing that risk.”
The plan envisages a week of testing between 30 November and 6 December, ending a few days after the lockdown in England is due to finish. In a major shift, the government has also said it would also instruct universities to then move learning online by 9 December so that students can have the option of returning home to study from there.
Donelan also gave a little more clarity on arrangements for after Christmas, confirming that students would be going back to campus.
“We will be returning students back in January, as is our current plan, utilising the testing,” she told the BBC.
Talks around each part of the UK are continuing between government officials and universities which have been seeking assurances on funding and protections from being sued before committing to the plans.
Donelan added: “Our target will be for those universities that have had higher infection rates or areas that have higher R rates, also areas that have higher percentages of more vulnerable [people] such as BAME, but fundamental to this plan is that the four weeks of national restrictions mean that the risk these students pose is now much reduced, so that unlocks the opportunity to then go home and feel a lot safer in doing so.”