Pressure is mounting on UK universities to cancel face-to-face teaching and move all studies online as cases multiply on campuses, including the University of Liverpool where almost 90 students and staff have already tested positive.
Students have barely begun their studies at the start of the new academic year, but at the University of Liverpool there have already been 87 confirmed cases over a seven-day period in the week before term began.
Details emerged as Boris Johnson delivered a sombre warning to MPs of six months of further restrictions, including a call to work from home where possible, in response to rising Covid infection rates. Universities should remain open, he said.
Prof Louise Kenny, the executive pro-vice-chancellor for the University of Liverpool’s faculty of health and life sciences, said students and staff were experiencing more Covid-19 cases in line with the wider Liverpool population.
“Our investment in an on-campus testing facility for staff and students displaying symptoms means that we are in a position to report on the numbers in our community who test positive and, importantly, to act quickly to stop the spread.”
Elsewhere, Manchester Metropolitan University, which has also been at the centre of an outbreak, refused to confirm staff claims of cases in every faculty, with reports of multiple cases at the business school.
And the University of Glasgow confirmed an outbreak on Twitter, urging students not to mix with other households and to download Scotland’s test-and-trace app. It said: “We are dealing with a number of #Covid19 cases in student residences. We have informed Public Health officials & @scotgov
“The students affected are self-isolating & are being supported by our @UofGLiving team to ensure they have access to food & other supplies.”
Among other universities already grappling with cases are Edinburgh Napier, Bath, Oxford Brookes and Stirling, with many senior leaders concerned about the speed of the outbreaks and what may lie ahead.
The University and College Union (UCU), which represents staff working in universities, has renewed its call for all teaching to be remote to help keep infection rates down. Most universities are trying to offer students at least some small-group, face-to-face contact, though the bulk of their studies are likely to be online.
“For Boris Johnson to say that universities should stay open whilst we are seeing reports of Covid outbreaks on campuses throughout the UK is an abdication of responsibility and it shows how disconnected he is from the facts on the ground,” the UCU’s general secretary, Jo Grady, said.
“We have been warning for weeks that without urgent action it will be impossible for universities to avoid becoming incubators of Covid, with university communities becoming transmission hotspots.
“We are now seeing that happen with outbreaks in universities. If this government is serious about reducing the number of confirmed cases then it must now tell universities to abandon in-person teaching.”
Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, said multiple health and safety measures had been put in place to ensure that some in-person teaching could be delivered safely. “Universities recognise that this is a difficult and uncertain time for everyone and will be considering the needs of staff and students on an individual basis,” a spokesman said.
Student leaders, meanwhile, have urged vice-chancellors not to “demonise” students, who have been blamed for increasing infections after holding illegal freshers’ parties. Manchester University is reported to have warned students in its halls of residence of a possible curfew, after a number of Covid breaches.
Students arriving at Durham University next weekend have been warned they will have to stay in their university accommodation for three days to mitigate the risk of cross-infection as students arrive from different locations.
In Oxford, meanwhile, the city council is holding a virtual town hall to discuss residents’ concerns after a large gathering of students at Oxford Brookes University were filmed ignoring social distancing rules.
Larissa Kennedy, the president of the National Union of Students, said the NUS was aware of reports of “a few instances” where students have failed to follow social distancing rules, but warned: “We must not demonise students for the failures of government.
“It is the government who have failed to put proper procedures in place to keep students safe, have ignored the concerns of students’ unions and university staff and have not established an adequate test-and-trace system to keep local communities safe.”