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‘Government sowing seeds of more university Covid chaos’

THE government is “sowing seeds of more chaos and incompetence” due to its lack of action on the rising number of university Covid-19 cases, Labour warned today.

Thousands of students are already self-isolating on campuses, but Labour said that to limit new C-19 cases, the start of autumn term should be delayed for those who have yet to attend.

The party also called for increased C-19 testing capacity so that students can return home for Christmas — Health Secretary Matt Hancock said last week that he would not rule out asking students to stay at university over Christmas to prevent the virus from spreading.

At the weekend 1,700 students at Manchester Metropolitan University were told to self-isolate after 127 new cases were reported. 

University & College Union general secretary Jo Grady said: “We warned last month of the problems with moving thousands of students across the country, and the time has come for urgent action from ministers and universities to protect staff and students.

“There is no point encouraging students to come to university to self-isolate for a fortnight.

“This was a wholly predictable and unnecessary crisis. It is unfair on students, on staff and on their local communities.”

In Scotland, more than 1,000 students have been told not to socialise with anyone outside their accommodation as a result of positive cases.

There are 600 students self-isolating at Glasgow University after 124 cases were reported and in Dundee, 500 Abertay University students were asked to self-isolate this week in accommodation where three people have tested positive.

The Scottish government’s national clinical director Jason Leitch said that students under lockdown cannot return to their parents’ homes except where certain exceptions are met. Last Thursday, he tweeted: “There are exceptions, eg caring responsibilities, but the law is clear: they can’t meet indoors with another household – even mum and dad. Sorry.”

But there is concern for students, numbers of whom are away from home for the first time. The National Union of Students has warned that youngsters being required to self-isolate in university accommodation over Christmas could have “an inordinate impact on their wellbeing.”

Shadow education secretary Kate Green called on the government to reassure students that they will be able to safely return home for Christmas and asked ministers to consider a pause in student travel or delay term starting for students who have yet to leave home.

The government has failed to take adequate steps to prepare — despite having months to do so, she said.

Universities such as Leicester and Cambridge have developed their own testing capability to make up for the lack of available NHS testing.

In her letter to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson Ms Green called for improved testing provision in universities, improvements in remote-learning provision to bridge the “digital divide” and support for mental-health services.   

She warned that the government had “let young people down with the exam fiasco over the summer, and now many of those same students are being let down again.” 

She said: “It is unthinkable that students will be locked in their rooms and unable to return home to spend Christmas with their families.

“The government must promise that this will not happen and work with universities to enable every student to access tests so that they can travel home safely.

“Gavin Williamson must urgently come to Parliament and set out how he will resolve the critical situation in our universities that is causing such anxiety for families across the country,” she said.

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