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Silver Level Contributor
Covid Christmas: Rapid tests could get students home

Image: Jacob King

Covid tests with results within an hour are being piloted in universities - which could help students in England get home for Christmas.

More than a million students will have to travel from their term-time accommodation in December.

This has raised concerns about spreading coronavirus as students move across the country between areas with different levels of infection.

In Scotland universities could switch to more online teaching in January.

Christmas migration

Universities have called for a testing system with a rapid turnaround of results.

But there have been questions about the feasibility of how quickly this could be scaled up - and how to avoid what the SAGE scientific advisory group calls the "significant risk" of students causing outbreaks by moving for Christmas and New Year.

De Montfort and Durham universities are now running pilot projects for rapid Covid testing, including identifying those who might be infectious but have no symptoms.


In England, about 1.2 million students are expected to move in December from a university to a home address in another region, where there might be different levels of infection and restrictions.

This includes 200,000 students travelling away from universities in London, 235,000 from the south east, 120,000 leaving the north west, 123,000 out of Yorkshire and Humber and 120,000 from the West Midlands.

In Scotland, 150,000 students will be travelling home.


Students in Scotland have protested about how they are being treated in the pandemic - Image: Jane Barlow

A decision, involving all four devolved governments and education ministries in the UK, is awaited on the logistics of getting students home for Christmas, in a way that will not cause Covid outbreaks.

So far this term there have been virus cases in 118 universities across the UK, according to tracking by the Unicovid website, with tens of thousands of students having to self-isolate.

Staggered end of term

England's Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has proposed an early end to teaching in person, creating a two-week buffer in which to get students home for the holidays.

In Scotland, Education Secretary John Swinney has suggested a staggered end of term and has not ruled out students being kept in universities over the break, if "we have a situation where the virus has not been controlled".

Universities, who would face the challenge of keeping students in Christmas isolation, have called for a faster system of mass testing.


Universities want tests with a rapid turnaround of results - Image: PA Media

"Enhanced testing capacity - including faster turnaround of results and effective contact tracing - will help to contain outbreaks at universities and limit transmission to the wider community," says a Universities UK spokesman.

The 'lateral flow tests' now being piloted are intended to find out whether someone has "high enough levels of Covid-19 in their body to make them infectious to others", says a statement from Durham University.

Using a nose and throat swab, the tests would be self-administered and would not need a laboratory to process the results.

Switching to online

The Department for Health and Social Care says the aim of the pilots would be to "turn around rapid results within an hour at the location of the test".

And the DHSC says the pilots at Durham and De Montfort will see how such tests could be used "at scale".

Durham says the pilot project, beginning this week for staff and students in two of its colleges, will be able to deliver results within 20 to 30 minutes.

Once students have been safely removed from university in December there will then be questions about how they can be brought back in January, without triggering another wave of campus outbreaks.

The Scottish government says there could be more online teaching at the start of next term and in areas of "high prevalence" of infection in-person teaching might be reserved for those taking subjects which needed hands-on training.

The UCU lecturers' union has threatened legal action against the continuing use of in-person teaching, while the SAGE advisory group has called for as much teaching as possible to be online.

The DHSC says the testing pilots are "building the foundations for a mass testing programme" which could also help reduce the number of school pupils having to be sent home in Covid outbreaks.

Originally published by
Sean Coughlan | October 27, 2020
BBC News

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