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  • Andrew Waller

Campus reopenings called into question amid focus on coronavirus risks

Scientists advising the government on coronavirus policy may have underestimated the risks that partying students pose to the rest of the community.

Recent reports from Sage, the government’s scientific advisory body, chiefly focused on the potential for transmission of the virus when students go home at the end of term.

But there is also a risk that students could pass the infection into the communities in which they live, according to Dr Richard Tyler, co-ordinator of the National HMO Lobby. He has written a three-page response to recent papers published by Sage looking at the further and higher education sectors.

“The Lobby considers that these papers significantly underestimate the seriousness of the threat of Covid-19 in [Higher Education Institutions] to public health and safety,” he writes.

Coronavirus Act

He calls on the government to exercise its powers under the Coronavirus Act 2020 to ensure the safety of local communities as well as the university population and the nation at large. This could mean telling universities not to resume face-to-face teaching.

The National HMO Lobby represents residents’ associations in 40 towns across the UK on issues to do with HMOs, one of the main forms of accommodation for students.

Sage—full name the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies—says in one of the papers: “If there is an outbreak at a university (even if not widespread transmission), then students returning home could pose a risk for spread across the UK.”

But Dr Tyler comments: “A far more likely sequence of infection would comprise three phases: first, a rapid spread of infection within students’ accommodation … ; second, immediate transmission of infection to the local community, due to the predominance of the student presence, and their endemic disregard for social distancing and other guidelines provided by universities, as well as Government; and only lastly, subsequent dissemination of infection nationwide, as students return to their homes …”

Unprecedented Return

The Sage documents, which review university plans to reopen their campuses in September, appeared on the UK government website on 24 July but were written earlier in the month.

This means the authors may have been unaware that university cities such as Bristol, normally empty of under-graduates during the summer, have this month seen an unprecedented early return of students who are meeting for parties.

As a result, the risks of resurgence of infection and subsequent transmission to the local community may already be rising.

Dr Tyler has sent his response to Public Health England and other bodies.

(Dr Tyler circulated a draft of his response to HMO Lobby members and others before sending it. I submitted two comments, the first noting the large number of complaints in Bristol in July about noisy parties, which indicates the extent to which students are ignoring social-distancing guidelines, the second highlighting the role of university staff. Sage recognises that staff will be at risk if infections increase within universities. I noted that this unfortunately means that staff who go home to their families at the end of a working day represent a possible means of transmission between the university population and the wider community. AW)

Related documents: