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Proposals for mandatory Covid vaccinations for university students have triggered a sharp backlash, with one union saying they would be “hugely discriminatory”, while Labour branded the idea a “barrier to learning”.
Downing Street did not rule out a requirement for proof of double-jabbed status to attend lectures and move into halls of residence, amid growing concern about comparatively low levels of take-up of vaccines among younger Britons.
Boris Johnson is said to have floated the idea during a virtual meeting from his self-isolation at Chequers, when he is said to have been “raging” about NHS England figures showing one-third of 18 to 29-year-olds have still not had their first dose, compared to one in 10 in the adult population as a whole.
Meanwhile, new polling suggested that many younger people have swiftly abandoned protective measures since so-called freedom day on 19 July, when rules on mandatory masks and social distancing were dropped.
The proportion of 18-24 year-olds telling pollsters YouGov they wear masks in public place fell from 64 per cent in early June to 46 per cent now, while numbers saying they are avoiding crowded places from from 41 per cent to 26 per cent. Use of face coverings among older age groups was virtually unchanged.
Experts today warned that mixed government messages have contributed to the reluctance of some younger people to come forward for jabs.
“We have seen stigmatising language being used which blames young people for not ‘doing the right thing’,” said medical anthropologist Dr Ben Kasstan of Bristol University.
“But they have been receiving mixed government messages from the start of the pandemic, creating the perception that they are not a priority for protection, and public health is now paying the price for that.”
And Bristol’s chair in cognitive psychology Professor Colin Davis said: “There are several aspects of government messaging that have been unhelpful.
“When Sajid Javid explains matter of factly that the UK will soon reach 100,000 cases a day, the message that is being sent to young people is that it doesn’t matter if they are infected. The government should be more open about the dangers posed to young people by long Covid.”
Sociologist Robert Dingwall, of Nottingham Trent University, told The Independent that the focus should be on getting the vaccines to places where young people gather – through pop-up clinics at festivals, nightlife areas or freshers’ events at colleges – rather than threatening them with exclusion from nightclubs, pubs and lecture halls if they fail to get their jabs.
Tower Hamlets council in east London has announced a summer vaccine festival starting on Friday, offering live music and free food for over-18s coming to get a jab.
“The younger generation have had a pretty good kicking over the past 18 months,” said Prof Dingwall. “It’s entirely understandable that people are going to be disconnected and are saying ‘What’s the point of a vaccination campaign if we’re still going to have to provide documentation everywhere we go?’ If you are trying to promote vaccine uptake, threats don’t work very well.”
The recent fall in infection rates continued on Monday, with 24,950 positive cases reported – fewer than half the peak of 54,674 on 17 July, bringing the total for the past seven days down to 21 per cent below the previous week. Some 14 deaths were reported, bringing the weekly total up to 445 – 50 per cent higher than the previous seven days.
But Downing Street warned that the UK was “not out of the woods yet”, cautioning that the expected increase in infections resulting from the removal of lockdown restrictions on 19 July will not feed through into infections, hospitalisations and deaths for another week or two.
While describing latest figures as “encouraging”, a No 10 spokesman said the pandemic “is not over” and “we should still expect to see a rise in case numbers given the move to step 4 last week”.
Government scientific adviser Dr Mike Tildesley of Warwick University warned that the drop in positive cases may simply reflect the fact that secondary school children are no longer doing lateral flow tests twice a week now their summer holidays have started, allowing more asymptomatic infections to be missed.
Dr Tildesley, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling group (Spi-M) said he was “cautiously optimistic” but it would take another two weeks to be able to tell if the third Covid wave is “turning round”.
Education minister Vicky Ford said that, while the sustained drop in coronavirus cases is “very good news”, people must not become complacent.
“We all know how quickly it can go back up again,” she warned.
Ms Ford declined to rule out mandatory vaccination for university students, telling Times Radio: “We don’t want to go back to a situation where large parts of education were closed to many young people and children, and a key part of doing that is having that double-vaccinated population.
“So I think we need to continue to encourage our young people to step forward, have the vaccination, and that is the way that they can have that freedom and confidence that they’ll be able to have that full university life.”
But the general secretary of the University and College Union, Jo Grady, said: “Making vaccinations compulsory as a condition to access their education is wrong and would be hugely discriminatory against those who are unable to be vaccinated, and international students.
“Sadly, this looks and smells like a prime minister trying to pin the blame on students for not yet taking up a vaccine they haven’t been prioritised to receive.”
Ms Grady urged the prime minister to work with the NHS and universities to “enable and sensitively encourage student vaccination” instead of resorting to mandatory jab rules.
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said: “It’s a barrier for students learning and I don’t think that we should be putting barriers in place.
“We should be supporting students and encouraging students to come forward, as we are with every member of the population over the age of 18. Come forward and have your vaccine. If you are worried and concerned about it, please speak to your GP who can give you advice and guidance.”
And Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Munira Wilson said: “While it is crucial every adult who can get vaccinated does get the jab, attempting to withhold face-to-face education from students until they do is crossing a line.”
The latest data from the Office for National Statistics shows cases of coronavirus in 16-24 year-olds are almost six times more common than in 50-69 year-olds.
Department of Health sources said the government, NHS and Public Health England were providing advice and information to young people “at every possible opportunity” to encourage vaccine take-up.
They pointed to partnerships with social media platforms and dating apps, as well as campaigns fronted by football and boxing stars designed to inspire confidence among the young.