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‘Confusing, expensive and silly’: new Covid-19 guidance published

Department for Education releases fresh guidelines for universities during the pandemic

The government has detailed a series of tiered restrictions for universities during the Covid-19 pandemic as part of its updated guidance for higher education institutions.

In guidance published in the early hours of 10 September, the Department for Education set out a series of restriction levels for universities in the case of a Covid-19 outbreak locally, with the “key aim being to retain face-to-face provision where it is possible to do so safely”.

The DfE said the updated guidelines—based on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies’ warning that there is a “significant risk” of a Covid-19 outbreak at universities—would help institutions “understand how to minimise risk” during the pandemic.

The guidelines were published following prime minister Boris Johnson’s announcement on 9 September that social gatherings of more than six people will be against the law from 14 September, after a nationwide rise in Covid-19 cases.

Under the first tier—the best case scenario, which should be the “default position”—all universities are expected to offer online and in-person teaching while following public health guidance, including the use of face coverings. If there is a local rise in Covid-19 cases, a second tier of restrictions would see universities “move to an increased level of online learning where possible”.

A third tier of restrictions would see universities move more learning online and keep face-to-face teaching for “priority courses” in areas such as medicine. Students could also be asked to stay in their accommodation. A “last resort” fourth tier would see “majority of provision [go] online, with buildings open for essential workers only”, including for the “continuation of essential research”.

“Unless told otherwise, in the event of additional restrictions being imposed locally during term, students should remain in their current accommodation and not return to the family home, which would increase the risk of transmitting the infection,” the DfE said.

Elsewhere, the DfE said it was “the responsibility of higher education providers to assess the risk of opening other buildings and to implement suitable precautions”. It said universities should make sure face coverings are used on campus and use well-ventilated rooms for teaching and learning.

Separate advice on test and trace at universities was published with the guidance—the Test and Trace Handbook—which sets out how universities should respond to a Covid-19 outbreak on campus.

Universities minister, Michelle Donelan, said the safety and wellbeing of university staff and students “is our priority”.

“Universities have been making a mammoth effort to safely open campuses and buildings to students this autumn, and the government has worked closely with them to ensure they are well prepared for the return of students,” she said.

“The updated guidance includes the recent Sage advice and will help university leaders access the information they need, and assist their existing plans to keep students and staff as safe as possible.”

University and College Union general secretary Jo Grady said the updated guidelines showed all teaching should be online only. “We cannot see why the government is insisting young people move around the country and engage in unnecessary face-to-face interactions,” she said. “We hope the panel today will share our concerns and back moving more learning online until these worrying rates come down.”

Grady added that the guidance, which is for universities in England, contained “confusing, expensive and at times silly suggestions”.

“Moving learning online would remove the need for universities to consider teaching outside or opening doors and windows in the winter months, as the guidance suggests,” she said. 

Later today the union said it would ask deputy chief medical officer, Jenny Harries, if she thinks colleges and universities should move their learning online in an effort to combat the spread of Covid-19.

Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, welcomed the guidance. “Throughout the coronavirus pandemic universities have followed—at a minimum—official government and public health advice and today’s government update provides a framework for universities to operate in a way that meets the needs and circumstances of their communities,” he said.

“Universities have been working hard over many months, drawing on expertise from within the sector, external advice, working with government and local partners, and in consultation with student and staff groups, to do everything possible to put in place Covid-secure safety measures for this academic year.

“While the wider situation with the virus across the country clearly remains uncertain and fast moving, universities will continue to work closely with national and local health bodies to ensure robust and adaptable measures for the new term and beyond.”

More response from the higher education sector

Diana Beech, former adviser to the three universities and science ministers and head of government affairs at the University of Warwick:

“This latest guidance comes too late in more ways than one—as universities and colleges up and down the country have already begun welcoming more students and staff back on to campuses. Many have also been busy developing their own internal testing programmes and in-residence quarantine processes, which work for the particular make-up of their student communities. So the latest guidance feels like the government is playing catch-up with a sector that is already one step ahead of them.

“In terms of the Track and Trace Handbook, it is all well and good emphasising that it is a voluntary decision for providers to run internal covid-19 testing programmes. However, with tests available on a symptomatic basis only through the National Testing Programme, institutions basically have no choice but to step up and develop programmes of their own if they are serious about controlling infections among a population typically comprising asymptomatic young people—not to mention avoid the wrath of the nation if universities are seen to be incubating the virus and increasing the spread as we head into the winter. In this sense, I’d say it’s less of a handbook and more about passing the buck.”

Rachel Hewitt, director of policy and advocacy at the Higher Education Policy Institute: 

“It’s good to see the further guidance being published today, particularly the tier stages of response which gives some structure to how any outbreaks can be managed. Universities will need to be clear with students about what the ‘rule of 6’ means when it comes to those living in university halls.

“While it is inevitable that there are some who will flout the rules, I’m sure most students, who have already been preparing for a very different university experience will follow the government guidance, as they have since the pandemic started. To some extent, the solution for students and universities is the same as across the rest of the country—comprehensive testing and reliable track and trace systems need to be in place to help manage and contain the virus. Any limits to this put university environments further at risk.”

Spokesperson for the Russell Group:

“We welcome the updated guidance from the DfE, which recognises the work our universities have been doing to ensure campuses are ready and safe for the new academic year. The steps taken by universities will help to reduce transmission on campus and in the wider community, so students will be able benefit from a blend of high quality online and face to face teaching delivered in safe and effective way.

“Our members are also working with students to remind them of their duty to the wider community and the importance of following government guidance, with many putting in place new or enhanced agreements on responsible behaviour. In addition to the steps being taken by our universities, we would urge the Government to ensure that sufficient local testing capacity is in place. Our universities will continue to work with local authorities to set up a coordinated approach so transmission risks are minimised and any outbreaks can be managed appropriately.”

Updated with additional comment at 12:30pm, 10 September 2020