The Westminster government has unveiled how it plans to safely return students home following the four-week lockdown.
Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said that students returning home across the UK would be required to undertake at least a fortnight of “refined behaviour”.
Michelle Donelan told BBC Breakfast: “They need at least two weeks of refined behaviour and we will be providing a comms [communication] campaign to support that, with information so they know exactly what they are to do.”
Universities will set staggered departure times for returning pupils while in-person teaching will be ended prematurely as part of the programme.
How will students return home before Christmas?
Universities in England have been told to set staggered departure dates during a “travel window” between December 3 and December 9 so students can return home after the four-week lockdown.
In line with the mass exodus, universities have been advised to offer students rapid result Covid tests and end in-person teaching by December 9 so students have enough time to self-isolate before returning home for Christmas.
If a student tests positive for Covid-19 on or before this date, they must self-isolate at university, according to the Department for Education (DfE).
Students will only be required to self-isolate for 10 days rather than the usual 14- day period for those who have tested positive with asymptomatic conditions.
Students who test negative for coronavirus at university on or before December 9 – but who are still identified as a close contact of someone who has tested positive – will be allowed to return to their family home but they must continue self-isolation at home for a period of 14 days, according to the DfE.
The “student travel window” will begin just as national restrictions in England finish on December 2 and it is hoped that this will reduce the risk of transmission, while allowing students to get home for Christmas.
The guidance says universities should not restart any social and extra-curricular activities when the second lockdown in England ends and they should work with hospitality settings in the local area to discourage opportunities for students to “socialise extensively” before returning home.
If a student chooses to remain at university after December 9, then they would be “at risk of not being able to travel home” for Christmas as they may have to self-isolate for up to 14 days if they test positive for coronavirus, or if they are identified as a contact of someone who had, it adds.
Criticism of government strategy
The University and College Union (UCU) has said the Government’s plans are “riddled with holes” and they warned that the tight timescale for a mass movement of students “left little room for error.”
Dr David Nabarro, one of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) special envoys on Covid-19, urged people to be “careful” when students return to university after Christmas.
He told Sky News: “So if there’s going to be a big return in January, all I’m going to say is, everybody be careful. Because that’s when the virus can really move around quickly.”
Robert Halfon, chairman of the Education Select Committee, said it was “right” for students to go to university this term and added that they should be allowed to return home for Christmas.
Speaking to Times Radio, Mr Halfon said: “I think it will be awful for the families, I think it would cause significant anxiety, wellbeing, mental health issues for students if they weren’t with their families over Christmas.”