University students in England are being told to go home to spend Christmas with their families as soon as the lockdown ends next month.
Face-to-face learning should end by 9 December, new guidance says, allowing young people to travel at a time when the risk of Covid-19 transmission is lowest – after the four weeks of restrictions.
A week-long “student travel window” from 3 December will see universities set staggered departure dates, to ease the pressure on public transport.
The guidance follows the furore over suggestions that students might be trapped in their halls of residence over the festive period, to prevent them spreading the virus across the country.
Gavin Williamson, the education secretary – facing rising criticism over the “disgusting” conditions students faced, as they were ordered to stay in their rooms – stepped back from such a move.
Now the guidance also seeks to solve the problem facing students who test positive before they are due to leave, forcing them to self-isolate for 10 days.
Moving all learning online by 9 December will provide enough time for students to complete that isolation period and still return home for Christmas, ministers say.
They have promised to “work closely with universities to establish mass testing” ahead of departures, with priority given to universities in hotspot areas.
“We are delivering on our commitment to get students back to their loved ones as safely as possible for the holidays,” said Michelle Donelan, the universities minister.
“We have worked really hard to find a way to do this for students, while limiting the risk of transmission.
“Now it is vital they follow these measures to protect their families and communities, and for universities to make sure students have all the wellbeing support they need, especially those who stay on campus over the break.”
Speaking ahead of the announcement, the University and College Union warned of “huge hurdles” to be overcome if mass testing is to be carried out.
“Some of our concerns include whether all universities will be able to take part, how the tests will be administered, who will cover the costs, what the plan is for students who commute to campus daily from their family home, and how students who aren’t able to be tested will travel home safely,” said Jo Grady, its general secretary.
Ms Donelan stressed that English students at universities in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland should follow the guidance in those nations, before returning home.
If they had not gone through a four-week lockdown, they should restrict their contacts with others for at least 14 days, either before or after returning home to England.
Dr Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer, said: “The mass movement of students across the country at the end of term presents a really significant challenge within the Covid-19 response. The measures announced today will help minimise that risk.”
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