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Johnson approves 8 March return to campus for some students

 Image: Number 10 [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr

Prime minister sets out ‘cautious but irreversible’ way out of lockdown

Students on practical courses will be allowed to return to campuses from 8 March, with a decision on when other students can resume face-to-face teaching expected after Easter.

Prime minister Boris Johnson told MPs that the government would be “led by data, not dates” as he set out his “cautious but irreversible” roadmap out of Covid-19 lockdown in the House of Commons on 22 February.

Students taking practical subjects such as engineering or architecture, those who need specialist facilities or on-site assessments will be allowed to return to universities on 8 March, Johnson said, and schools and further education venues will also be allowed to reopen then.

However, Johnson stressed that “all others will need to continue learning online” and said the government would “review the options for when they can return by the end of the Easter holidays”.

Tests and reviews

Students returning to campuses from 8 March will be encouraged to take twice-weekly lateral flow tests, designed to catch asymptomatic cases of Covid-19.

Restrictions will be reviewed every five weeks, with an almost full relaxation of the rules expected by 21 June.

But Johnson cautioned that each stage of relaxing restrictions would depend on the success of the vaccination programme, whether infection rates rise again to risk another spike in hospital admissions, and whether new variants make the virus more dangerous.

Universities minister Michelle Donelan said: “From the very start of this pandemic, our priority has been protecting the education and wellbeing of our students, so that they can continue with their studies and graduate as planned.

“We must take steps to help mitigate and reduce transmission around the country, which is why we are implementing a staggered return to in-person teaching,” she said. Regarding students who stay with online teaching for now, Donelan said: “We are clear that the quality and quantity of tuition for these students should not drop.”

‘High-quality education’ a priority

Greg Walker, chief executive of the modern universities group MillionPlus, said universities were “focused on safely returning students to campus as soon as government health advice confirms that this is allowed”.

“Our priority is to ensure continued high-quality education for those the government asks to continue to learn remotely for now, alongside a Covid-secure experience for those students who have already returned and the practical students who will be permitted to return from 8 March,” he said.

Julia Buckingham, president of vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK, said: “This announcement is a long-awaited boost for students in England on practical and practice-based subjects, whose access to specialist facilities—laboratories, studios, workshops and performance spaces—is essential.”

She added that universities “look forward to welcoming these students back to Covid-secure campuses from 8 March, where safety measures including serial asymptomatic testing and social distancing will be in place to ensure the risk of transmission remains low”.

“While today’s news is positive for some students, it will be disappointing for others that had hoped the government would have allowed them to return,” she added. “University staff will continue working hard to keep all students motivated, supported, and progressing towards their qualifications. There will also need to be a further focus on supporting students’ mental health and wellbeing in the weeks ahead.”

Timetable ‘irresponsible’

But Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said the timetable for allowing university students back to campuses was “irresponsible” and she claimed that lateral flow tests are “completely unsuitable for testing on campuses” as they may “give people a false sense of security, increasing the risk outbreaks”.

She also warned that if employers did not prioritise staff safety industrial action could be on the cards. “Employers must work with us to protect staff and student safety,” she said. “If our members feel their health and safety is being put at risk, then we will support them to protect themselves, including through balloting for industrial action where necessary.”