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Donelan downplays seriousness of Northumbria Covid-19 outbreak

Image: David Woolfall [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Universities minister under fire over claims about scale of Northumbria Covid-19 outbreak

The universities minister, Michelle Donelan, has been criticised after appearing to misunderstand the scale of a coronavirus outbreak among students at Northumbria University. 
At a House of Commons education committee meeting on 5 October, Labour MP Apsana Begum referenced the 770 students that Northumbria University confirmed had tested positive for Covid-19 as of 2 October. 
Begum called it “a really big outbreak”, and asked Donelan if government guidance was sufficient to ensure there were not similar outbreaks elsewhere. 
However, while Donelan acknowledged in her response that the situation was “challenging for students involved”, she appeared to play down how serious it was.
“Just to be clear that figure [770] was misreported in the media—that figure was actually those who had obtained Covid, contracted Covid from August, not over the weekend or the last few days, and it also included their London campus and their campus in Amsterdam as well,” the universities minister said. “So the real number was only just over 200."
“That’s still 200 students that are infected and I fully appreciate that fact,” she added. “We’ve been doing everything we can to try and minimise that outbreak.”
However, a spokesman for Northumbria University confirmed to Research Professional News that all 770 of the cases reported by the university on 2 October related to students at its Newcastle campus—and did not include anyone at its London or Amsterdam outposts. 
A statement on the university’s website says the figure represents the “cumulative number of students who have reported testing positive since they started to return to university for the start of term in mid-September”, meaning it does not include all individuals who had contracted Covid-19 since August as the minister suggested. 
Jo Grady, University and College Union general secretary, said Donelan was “incorrectly quibbling over figures, rather than seriously addressing the problem”, which “rather sums up this government’s failure to get to grips with the crisis”. 
“Students and staff want clear guidance that will keep them and local communities safe, not attempts to spin or misdirect,” she added. “Having 770 Covid cases at a university is a serious problem wherever they were recorded.”
“It is time for the minister to take a serious grip of the crisis. She should allow students to return home if they wish, and it is safe to do so, and get universities to move their work online.”
Research Professional News has contacted the Department for Education for a response.