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‘Vague’ government guidance criticised after hall lockdowns

Lockdown at Manchester Metropolitan University prompts criticism of government advice

The decision to allow self-isolating students at Manchester Metropolitan University to mix with other students in their halls of residence was “irresponsible”, likely to result increase Covid-19 infection rates, and the result of “vague” government guidance, it has been claimed.

Around 1,700 students were locked down in two halls of residence at MMU on 25 September for a two-week isolation period, after more than 100 students tested positive for Covid-19.

A spokesperson for Public Health England (PHE) told Research Professional News that when the first cases of Covid-19 were confirmed, MMU “had been managing the initial stages of the outbreak on a flat-by-flat basis as this enabled them to supply specific support to those households”.

Government guidance for universities states that institutions and local health protection teams must “carry out a risk assessment and identify who is required to take part in whole household isolation based on how closely they have been living together”.

It says that although it depends on the circumstances, “this would normally include those students living in the same flat or on the same floor who share cooking or washing facilities, or both”.

However, as the outbreak of Covid-19 grew larger, the local outbreak control team—which is made up of representatives from local government and health experts—decided that “there was no choice but to take rapid additional action” and students in Birley and Cambridge halls were all told to self-isolate.

They were told not to use the national testing system, and instead Covid-19 testing kits were delivered to students’ doors as part of a PHE pilot for outbreak control.

The PHE spokesperson explained that once that decision was made to ask whole halls to self-isolate, managing the outbreak on a flat-by-flat basis “became incredibly difficult with regard to the health and safety of university staff”.

Following a discussion with the director for public health, MMU “took a pragmatic approach to try to manage the whole hall as a bubble while stressing the need for students to ensure they maintained social distancing”, the spokesperson said.

In an email sent to the affected students on 27 September, seen by Research Professional News, the university said: “We are now treating the whole of the hall, rather than individual flats, as a bubble. Therefore you are free to mix with other ‘households’ in your specific hall, bu we would remind you again to be considerate to fellow students and local community neighbours in terms of noise and disturbance.”

It meant that rather than isolating in smaller numbers, students were allowed to mix with students from other flats within their halls.

Research Professional News contacted MMU for this article and was referred back to a previous briefing given to our 8am Playbook, in which the university said that once the outbreak control group said the whole building should self-isolate, it saw “little value in continuing to limit household groups to 12”.

The guidance from MMU was updated on 1 October and students were told that they must stay within their flats. In the updated guidance, MMU said: “As part of the strategy around testing we advised you of the importance of adhering to social distancing measures and also that you must now interact only with other students in your flat or townhouse as much as possible. This was an update on previous guidance and applies to everyone, whether you took a test or not.”

The PHE spokesperson said the outbreak control team “continued to review the risk assessments and case epidemiology for the halls on a daily basis”, and the self-testing system “allowed greater knowledge around case data for specific flats and communications to all students affected instructed them to self-isolate in their immediate household and not mix with students in the wider halls of residence”.

“Trapping students in big ‘household’ bubbles is completely irresponsible and seems likely to increase infection rates amongst them,” said Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, adding that the government “has written guidance so vague that, now predicted outbreaks have arrived, universities can take completely different approaches to managing them”.

“To stem this crisis the government needs to listen to SAGE, halt in-person teaching immediately, and allow students who wish to return home to do so once it is safe,” she added.

The PHE spokesperson said that the government guidance “requires a case by case assessment to ensure the needs of the immediate situation are met and take into account a number of things including the number of cases and the nature and layout of the building”.

“The nature of guidance means it is not a stringent set of rules and therefore there is in-built flexibility to adapt to the needs of specific situations,” the spokesperson added.

Larissa Kennedy, president of the National Union of Students, said that universities and students in lockdowns “have been doing what they can to follow government guidelines and abide by the rules throughout the pandemic”.

“The student lockdowns across the UK have proven first-hand the complete disregard that this government has for students, staff and local communities affected.

“Leaders have, once again, failed to make appropriate judgements and offer adequate instruction, despite being able to anticipate these incidents months in advance and having sufficient time to prepare,” she said.

The Department for Education has been contacted for comment.