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Coronavirus: Universities risk becoming ground zero for second wave, union warns

UCU general secretary calls expected mass movement of students ‘recipe for disaster’

Zoe Tidman
Sunday 30 August 2020 17:19 BST
Union calls for face-to-face teaching to be cancelled for first term due to Covid-19
Union calls for face-to-face teaching to be cancelled for first term due to Covid-19 (iStock)

University campuses could become ground zero for a second wave of the coronavirus, experts have warned as students prepare to start the autumn term.

With institutions resuming teaching next month, the University and College Union (UCU) said the government is “encouraging a public health crisis”.

“Moving a million plus students around the country is a recipe for disaster and risks leaving ill-prepared universities as the care homes of a second wave,” Jo Grady, the general secretary, said.

She called on the government to tell universities to “abandon plans for face-to-face teaching” and move it all online for the first term.

Ms Grady also accused the government of a lack of planning, with more students expected on campuses following the admissions fiasco, and data emerging that infection rates are increasing among younger people.

Experts have previously warned that university students risk spreading the virus as they return home from campuses for holidays.

The UCU wants students to avoid campuses until Christmas unless a testing scheme begins operating at universities.

A group of scientists previously recommended that universities test all students and staff for the coronavirus as they arrive on campus, and avoid face-to-face teaching.

Independent Sage reported on 21 August that all courses should be offered online – apart from those which are lab or practice-based – as in-person teaching carries a higher risk of virus transmission.

The group recommended that socialising among students should be restricted to “residential bubbles” in the first few weeks to prevent infection.

Independent Sage also called for compulsory coronavirus testing for UK university staff and students to help prevent potential transmission.

Many universities have announced a mix of online and face-to-face teaching ahead of the new term as a precaution against the virus.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We are confident that universities are well prepared for the return of students by taking measures such as introducing social distancing on campus, limiting travel requirement for classes and staggering teaching across extended days to reduce numbers on site.”

“We support face-to-face teaching only where possible and if safety guidelines are followed, but know that high-quality online teaching can also be delivered if necessary,” they said.

“We are keeping our guidance under constant review, and are currently updating our advice on reopening higher education buildings and campuses to reflect the latest public health advice.”

Additional reporting by Press Association

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