Students travelling home to England from other parts of the UK should undertake at least a fortnight of “refined behaviour” before returning to their families for Christmas, the Universities Minister has urged.
Michelle Donelan told BBC Breakfast: “They need at least two weeks of refined behaviour and we will be providing a comms (communication) campaign to support that, with information so they know exactly what they are to do.”
Universities in England have been told to set staggered departure dates during a “travel window” between December 3 and December 9 so students can return home after the four-week lockdown.
English universities have been encouraged to offer rapid result Covid tests and end in-person teaching by December 9 so students have enough time to self-isolate before returning home for Christmas.
If a student tests positive for Covid-19 on or before this date, they must self-isolate at university for a period of 10 days, according to the Department for Education (DfE).
Asked why students were not being told to isolate for a fortnight, Ms Donelan said it had been a “very difficult” term for students and the Government wants to allow them to go home for Christmas.
Students who test negative for coronavirus at university on or before December 9 – but who are still identified as a close contact of someone who has tested positive – will be allowed to return to their family home but they must continue self-isolation at home for a period of 14 days, according to the DfE.
But the University and College Union (UCU) has said the Government’s plans are “riddled with holes” and they warned that the tight timescale for a mass movement of students “left little room for error.”
The DfE has said Covid-19 tests will be offered to as many students as possible before they travel, but academics have warned that a roll out of mass testing will be a “massive undertaking”.
On Wednesday, the Welsh Government said university students will be asked to undergo rapid coronavirus testing before returning home for Christmas.
Welsh universities will also end the majority of “in-person” lessons in the week ending December 8, allowing time for students who test positive to isolate.
Universities have called on the Government to ensure testing capacity is established in time for the start of the spring term so students can safely resume their studies in-person when they return in January.
Dr David Nabarro, one of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) special envoys on Covid-19, urged people to be “careful” when students return to university after Christmas.
He told Sky News: “So if there’s going to be a big return in January, all I’m going to say is, everybody be careful. Because that’s when the virus can really move around quickly.”
Ms Donelan said rapid testing would form a “key part” of the Government’s plan to get students back to university after Christmas. But she insisted that students would not have to test negative.
“What we’re saying is that it’s going to be a part of the return to university in January,” she told Sky News.
The “student travel window” will begin just as national restrictions in England finish on December 2 and it is hoped that this will reduce the risk of transmission, while allowing students to get home for Christmas.
The guidance says universities should not restart any social and extra-curricular activities when the second lockdown in England ends and they should work with hospitality settings in the local area to discourage opportunities for students to “socialise extensively” before returning home.
If a student chooses to remain at university after December 9, then they would be “at risk of not being able to travel home” for Christmas as they may have to self-isolate for up to 14 days if they test positive for coronavirus, or if they are identified as a contact of someone who had, it adds.
The universities minister said she expected Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to set out their plans for students returning home in the coming days.
In Scotland, there will be a ministerial statement on Wednesday afternoon about supporting students to return home safely at the end of term.
Robert Halfon, chairman of the Education Select Committee, said it was “right” for students to go to university this term and added that they should be allowed to return home for Christmas.
Speaking to Times Radio, Mr Halfon said: “I think it will be awful for the families, I think it would cause significant anxiety, wellbeing, mental health issues for students if they weren’t with their families over Christmas.”