Voices: Students want to be Covid-safe but the government keeps letting them down

·3-min read
Our amazing universities have done an inspiring job, from the creation of the vaccine to now rolling out this essential protection to their student communities (AFP/Getty)
Our amazing universities have done an inspiring job, from the creation of the vaccine to now rolling out this essential protection to their student communities (AFP/Getty)

As students prepare to return to campus over the coming weeks, another term is set to begin with the spectre of a new wave of Covid-19 sweeping across UK universities.

Students are into their third year of disruption. For some, their entire university career has been experienced under the cloud of Covid. No one wants a repeat of October 2020, when students were locked in halls as Covid rates rocketed across university campuses.

So, more than a year on, why are we still asking the same questions of the government’s pandemic response? Why are students still struggling to get lateral flow tests (LFDs) when required to do so? And why have universities not been granted more support to ventilate lecture theatres and buildings?

The answer lies clearly in the government’s chaotic, last-minute approach – failing to plan ahead, to learn from previous peaks in infections, or to listen to universities in their calls for support. Boris Johnson’s bumbling performance and failing leadership is letting down students, who are seeing their promised university experience disappearing in wave after wave of government Covid chaos.

Over the past weeks, Covid cases have reached record levels, and all recent Department of Health briefings have underlined that this new Omicron variant is highly transmissible and that case rates are particularly high among younger demographics.

University campuses are unique places – places where students can put their ideas to the test, make lifelong friends, and work hard towards achieving their dreams. Unsurprisingly, National Union of Students (NUS) survey results show students want to be on campus, with the vast majority reporting that they were keen to get back in person, when safe to do so, in order to enjoy the world-class experience our universities offer. Students want their university experience, but they also want to keep themselves and their friends, families and communities safe.

Students are doing their bit. December data from the Office of National Statistics shows that 90 per cent of students have had one vaccine, with 78 per cent having had two doses, and students agree with government guidance that they should get tested before moving into university accommodation.

Our amazing universities have done an inspiring job, from the creation of the vaccine to now rolling out this essential protection to their student communities. But this week, students trying to do the right thing are again being let down by government incompetence.

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At the time of writing, all home delivery slots for LFDs are unavailable, and the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies has highlighted the lack of availability in UK pharmacies as representing a “huge” problem for the UK. If students weren’t able to pick up a testing kit from their university before they left campus in December, the only way they can access a university-provided test now is to travel to campus, untested.

The Welsh Labour government, having planned ahead and managed their supplies for the winter, has stepped in to provide England with 4 million additional tests, but we’re still facing shortages. Students want to keep doing their part to keep themselves and others safe, but can’t because of the failure of this government to get a grip on supply-chain issues.

The government must ensure testing capacity to keep the country moving. The Department for Education needs to make it crystal clear how many testing kits are being earmarked for use by universities, and when students can expect to access home testing kits.

It would be inexcusable to allow Covid to run wild on campuses once again. Not only does it put people’s health at risk, but it could mean more educational disruption. Students, staff, and all other members of university communities deserve better.

Matt Western MP is the shadow minister for higher education

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