The government has refused to rule out the idea of making full Covid vaccination mandatory for students if they want to return to college and university campuses this autumn.
Boris Johnson is said to have been “raging” about the low rates of vaccination among young people and is keen to encourage more of them to get the jab.
The prime minister proposed making the vaccine compulsory for students in higher and further education during virtual meetings he held at Chequers last week, according to The Times.
Asked whether the government was considering banning un-jabbed students from campus, education minister Vicky Ford refused to rule out the idea – saying ministers had to “consider everything”.
The minister for children told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I can’t comment on things which haven’t been announced, but one does need to look at every practically to make sure we can get students back safely.”
Pressed on whether the government was considering the plan, Ms Ford added: “We’ve always considered everything we can do to make sure [students] are safe in education. And the key thing to get infection down is to make sure people get their vaccination.”
Asked twice on Times Radio whether unvaccinated students could be banned, Ms Ford said: “I think it’s important that everyone looks at every practical situation that we have there to try to keep people safe.”
She added: “If you want to get that freedom, not worrying about self-isolation, get on with university life …. do make sure you’ve had that vaccination.”
Mr Johnson reportedly suggested in Zoom calls with colleagues last week that students should be fully vaccinated before being allowed to attend lectures or return to halls of residence.
But the Department for Education (DfE) is thought to have concerns about both the legality and the practicalities involved in enforcing any ban on students.
The proposal will be staunchly opposed by many Conservative backbenchers. A group of around 40 Tory MPs have have already vowed to vote against the government’s plan to make double vaccination a condition of entry at nightclubs and other crowded venues.
Tory MP Robert Halfon, chairman of the Education Select Committee, criticised the idea as “wrong-headed,” adding: “It’s like something out of Huxley’s Brave New World where people with vaccine passports will be engineered into social hierarchies.
“Where does this stop? Do we fire apprentices who have not had the vaccine? Do we remove older students from [further education] colleges? Do we close down adult education courses where adults have not had the vaccine? I hope not.”
Lib Dem MP Munira Wilson, the party’s spokesperson for health, said the idea was “completely unacceptable” – saying it would be unfair to “punish” students.
“While it is crucial every adult who can get vaccinated does get the jab, attempting to withhold face-to-face education from students until they do is crossing a line,” said Ms Wilson.
“Government attempts to strong-arm them into getting vaccinated will simply push them away … This will not wash, and we cannot stand by while ministers try to punish young people for a pandemic Boris Johnson has utterly mishandled.”
Downing Street did not deny reports that students would need to be fully vaccinated to attend university lectures.
“We are still looking at the scope for vaccination certifications,” said a No 10 spokesperson.
Asked if there was concern about take-up of the vaccines in younger age groups, the spokesperson said: “I think you continue to see more and more young people coming forward to receive the vaccine, both in terms of first doses and now second doses.
“Of course, we want to see more people come forward to receive it.
“We would like to see everybody who is invited to come forward and receive the vaccination to do so. That’s the message we continue to try and give to young people.”
A government spokesperson said: “Universities and further education colleges are encouraged to promote the offer of both doses of the vaccine and should continue to conduct risk assessments for their particular circumstances – as well as implementing sensible and proportionate control measures.”
The spokesperson added: “If we consider that further measures are needed for these settings, we will set these out in the usual way.”
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