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Work ramps up ahead of mass Covid-19 testing at universities

The government’s lateral flow programme will be rolled out from Monday—but are universities feeling prepared?

Education secretary Gavin Williamson stretched the definition of “shortly” when he promised guidance on students’ migration home for Christmas back on 29 September. By the time the guidance was finally published on 11 November, universities had just a few weeks to prepare.

The guidance revealed that students across the UK would be allowed to travel home during a “student travel window” of 3 to 9 December, with a programme of mass testing—using lateral flow devices, which do not require a laboratory for processing and can turn around results within an hour—targeted towards universities “in areas of high prevalence” for Covid-19.

Testing starts from 30 November and 108 universities had signed up to take part in the government’s programme by the time it published its winter plan on 23 November.

One university taking part is the University of Reading. Deputy vice-chancellor Parveen Yaqoob told Research Professional News that the quick turnaround had been tough. “I think what’s been challenging is that the information comes out quite rough and ready and is being updated all of the time,” she said.

Yaqoob explained the university had looked at working with an external provider to deliver the testing, but in the end they decided to do “go it alone” because “this is such a new thing that even companies who are out there doing things relating to occupational health don’t quite have the experience that we need”.

She said that although there was a “fairly detailed template” for universities on how to implement the testing programme—she said there is a 109-page guidebook—it was still coming “quite close to the wire”. “If we had several weeks to organise this instead of a couple of weeks, we would be thinking things through in a lot more detail I think”.

Although Yaqoob said she was “a little bit apprehensive” about the testing next week, she stressed that she was “already starting to worry about January” because of the lack of guidance. “We can’t tell students before they go home for Christmas what’s going to happen in January because we don’t know ourselves,” she said.

Meanwhile, Yaqoob explained that although students would be recruited for paid roles on registration desks and managing testing queues, the university was “not expecting anybody to volunteer” apart from the senior team leading the work, and it was “very unlikely” that lecturers would work on the project.

“Unless a lecturer was really desperate to do it…I don’t think we would be using volunteers for any of this work,” she said.

But some universities have asked staff to volunteer for the testing week. At the University of Sussex, they were asked to take part in the programme and work shifts between 30 November and 11 December in “a completely Covid-secure environment”.

The university told them “we need your help” to carry out the testing, which it said staff would receive overtime payments for if they worked outside their normal hours.

Although the UCU at the University of Sussex said it would be “escalating concerns urgently” after staff had “raised alarms” over the “increased impact on workload, wellbeing and health & safety”, the university said it was “proud to be part of the national effort to test students for Covid-19”.

At the time, a spokesperson for the university said: “Similar calls are going out to universities across the country. The government requires every university that has been selected to take part in this programme to run and staff their own operations.”

Staff at Sheffield Hallam University were also given the opportunity to volunteer in its mass Covid-19 testing programme before students travel home. A spokesperson for the university stressed that some staff members had been asked to support the programme “on a purely voluntary basis”, with “no obligation or expectation for any member of staff to volunteer”.

“Any staff member who chooses to work in our testing centre would see their shift replace their normal working day, whilst they would also receive additional pay for any weekend shifts outside of their normal working hours,” the spokesperson said, explaining that staff would “receive the necessary training and measures will be in place to ensure that all safety guidance is followed”.

Other universities are carrying out their own testing programmes. David Phoenix, vice-chancellor at London South Bank University, said his university had already been working with Southwark Borough Council to arrange a programme of Covid-19 testing for students before the government announcement on the nationwide programme was made.

Testing at London South Bank University will go live next week, mirroring the nationwide programme, and non-essential face-to-face teaching will be phased out to allow students who live away from home to travel for Christmas.

But Phoenix said the campus would remain open until 24 December, as 80 per cent of its students commute and around a third “are indicating they don’t have sufficient study space or facilities at home”. “Research will obviously continue as will key placements such as in heath and teaching,” Phoenix added.

He said the university was looking beyond Christmas to January, and he stressed it was “vital that the government does not seek to restrict return to campus beyond 25 January as by this point most universities running courses that require core face-to-face elements will need to have returned to teaching”.

In an autumn term that has not been short of challenges, next week could prove the most challenging yet—although universities are still keeping a wary eye on the start of next term.