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A MASS coronavirus testing scheme for students starting today ahead of a travel window for their return home has been slammed a “recipe for chaos” by the University College Union (UCU).
Universities Minister Michelle Donelan has said that the government’s end-of-term travel guidance would allow students to return to their families for Christmas as safely as possible.
The testing programme is expected to run for just over a week until December 9. The travel window will start on Thursday and is also scheduled to end on December 9.
But the UCU said it has “grave concerns” over the schemes ending on the same day, adding that it would risk further spreading Covid-19.
The latest guidelines sent to universities say that students should take two tests, three days apart, with those testing negative expected to leave campus within the following 24 hours.
However the Innova lateral flow test, which the government is supplying for the scheme, has been described in the British Medical Journal as an “unevaluated, under-designed and costly mess.”
Concerns have been raised over false negatives, which could lead to people infecting others while believing that they are Covid-free.
Jon Deeks, professor of biostatistics at the University of Birmingham, said the Innova test — which has been used in the Liverpool mass screening pilot — detects 73 per cent of cases when patients are tested on a site with experienced research nurses.
But detection falls to 57 per cent among self-trained staff members at a testing centre.
UCU said it would be an “extremely challenging operation” to test so many students while following safety protocol, and that to do so successfully would “take time to implement.”
The union’s general secretary Jo Grady said: “The sector was only told about the plans for mass testing this month, yet the dates for them have already changed, suggesting the programme has been rushed with last-minute alterations.
“Not all universities are participating in the scheme, and the government accepts that people with Covid may be told they do not have it.
“We have grave concerns over how this programme will be carried out, particularly the risk of students being told — incorrectly — they do not have Covid, then relying on their test result to travel home and spend Christmas with vulnerable relatives. The risk of students receiving the wrong test result increases when testers have not been fully trained — rushing these plans makes that more likely.”
UCU also said that it was “worrying” there is no new financial support or guidance for universities to support students that would have to self-isolate, and that there are no confirmed plans for how students will be taught when they travel back to campus — many from areas with higher rates of Covid-19 infections — in January.
Last week, the union lodged a legal claim against Education Secretary Gavin Williamson over the government’s decision to ignore advice from its Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) in September to move learning online unless face-to-face teaching is absolutely essential.
The university testing scheme comes as England is set to enter a tiered system this week.
Labour said today that its support for the government’s tier system — that is set to replace the lockdown in England from Wednesday — was “not unconditional.”
Shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy called for “proper support put in place so that people can comply” ahead of tomorrow’s Commons vote on England’s second round of tiered restrictions.
A coronavirus vaccine rollout is expected to begin in England before Christmas, subject to regulatory approval, according to the government.
Stratford-on-Avon Tory MP Nadhim Zahawi has been appointed as a new health minister to oversee the rollout.
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