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Sage: national oversight needed for Covid threat at universities

Government’s scientific group says return to campus poses ‘significant’ risk of Coronavirus transmission

There is a “significant risk” that universities could cause a spike in Covid-19 transmission, the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies has warned, as it called for “national oversight” of the re-opening of higher education.

In a report published 4 September, Sage said it was “highly likely that there will be significant outbreaks” associated with unlocking universities, and “asymptomatic transmission may make these harder to detect”.

“There is a significant risk that higher education could amplify local and national transmission, and this requires national oversight,” Sage wrote. It said there was a greater risk of an outbreak at the end of term, which would pose “a significant risk to both extended families and local communities” as students travelled home for Christmas.

“All higher education institutions should expect to have cases of Covid-19 and it is highly likely that some higher education providers and relevant local health agencies will have to manage the consequences of a significant outbreak either directly associated with their setting or within their local community or region (high confidence),” Sage wrote.

Student accommodation and social gatherings could be “a high-risk environment for transmission to occur”, Sage said, and it stressed that any outbreak response “requires both local plans and coordinated national oversight and decision-making”.

To help control the spread of an outbreak, Sage recommended that clear strategies for testing and tracing cases are developed and that universities should reduce in-person interactions on campus. It also said communications strategies were “a critical part of minimising transmission risks associated with higher education”.

Commenting on the guidance, a Department for Education spokesperson said: “The safety and wellbeing of university students and staff is always a priority, and these findings from Sage underpin the protective measures being taken to open universities safely for students, staff and local communities.

“We have already published guidance on reopening higher education buildings and campuses, and will update this shortly to reflect Sage’s advice, to help universities prepare to open safely.

“We have also set up a Government taskforce with the sector to work closely with universities to support them with challenges they may be facing this academic year.”