Students warned they may need to self-isolate first if they want to go home for Christmas

After days of confusion, Gavin Williamson says students will ‘spend Christmas with their loved ones if they choose to do so’

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Tuesday 29 September 2020 17:15
Gavin Williamson says students will go home for Christmas – but may need to self-isolate first

Students may need to self-isolate as the end of term approaches to ensure they can go home for Christmas, the education secretary says.

Face-to-face learning may need to “end early”, to ensure infections are not spread when they go home, Gavin Williamson told MPs.

He promised fresh guidance shortly – admitting the experience of students in recent days was not what “any of them would have wanted or expected”. 

But – after days of confusion and uncertainty – Mr Williamson announced students would be able to “spend Christmas with their loved ones if they choose to do so”.

Labour’s Kate Green criticised a failure to help universities provide remote learning only, if they wished to, and the continued policy of testing students with symptoms only.

“That will leave many without testing and in self-isolation in difficulties,” the shadow education secretary protested.

Mr Williamson ducked questions about the growing calls for tuition fees to be cut, where students are not receiving the teaching promised – as Boris Johnson did earlier.

And he was unable to say whether students would be allowed to self-isolate in their family homes, if that was the only way to avoid them being trapped in halls of residence.

At least 40 universities have recorded cases of coronavirus – around one in four – leaving thousands of students locked down in halls.

They have complained of “disgusting” conditions as they are essentially sealed off from the outside world, deprived of the student experience they were promised.

Meanwhile, despite the prospect of no face-to-face learning, they are still required to pay fees of up to £9,250 per year, plus maintenance costs.

Lucy Powell, a Labour MP in Manchester – where students were barred from leaving their rooms – attacked “no planning or foresight, confused messages and a woeful lack of quick testing”. 

Responding to such criticism, the education secretary said it was “essential” that measures are put in place to ensure a Christmas return home.

“There may be a requirement for some students to self-isolate at the end of term and we will be working with the sector to ensure this will be possible, including ending in-person learning if that is deemed to be necessary.

“My department will publish this guidance shortly so that every student will be able to spend Christmas with their family.”

Mr Williamson also defended the return to universities, saying: “Sage warned about the impact of youngsters not going to university, having that taken away from them, the opportunity to be able to return.

“We mustn’t forget that hundreds of thousands, almost a million students have safely returned back to university over the last few weeks.”

He admitted remote-learning-only was possible, in infection blackspots, but added: “We envisage that to be a very small number of universities.”

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