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Government testing plan for students is 'recipe for chaos'

28 November 2020 | last updated: 2 December 2020

In the The Observer UCU raised 'grave concerns' about the Westminster government's plans for student movement over the Christmas holidays. It said plans for mass-testing, which begin tomorrow, and a pre-Christmas student evacuation were a 'recipe for chaos' and risked a repeat of September's student travel turmoil. 

This week UCU lodged a legal claim against the Westminster government's decision to ignore advice from its Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) in September to move learning online unless face-to-face teaching is absolutely essential. The union believes this decision was unlawful and is seeking an urgent review of Westminster's decision and to be consulted before any new decision is made. It hopes this will increase the pressure on the government to plan properly for the movement of students and lower the risk of more outbreaks.

Universities minister Michelle Donelan said the government's end of term travel guidance would allow students to return home as safely as possible for the holidays during a student 'travel window' from 3 to 9 December. The government has told students to rearrange their journeys to travel within it. Just weeks ago (10 November), the BBC reported that Donelan told universities that testing would run from 30 November to 6 December. This has now changed to 9 December, which means that mass testing and the travel window will finish on the same day. The government has not provided any additional funding to help universities support students who test positive to self-isolate, and has referred to a checklist from October on how universities can support isolating students. 

The BBC also reported that the latest guidelines sent to universities show students should take two Covid-19 tests, three days apart, with those testing negative expected to leave within the following 24 hours. However, the lateral flow tests which the government is supplying for the mass testing have been criticised in the British Medical Journal as an 'unevaluated, under designed and costly mess'. Particular concerns have been raised over people getting incorrect false negatives and then infecting others whilst they believe they are Covid-19 free. A government backed University of Oxford report found the 'the delivery of appropriate training appears important to the performance of the tests'.

UCU said the last-minute announcements on testing dates create further confusion for students who may have already altered their travel arrangements, and poses significant risks to staff undertaking the testing. It said testing so many people and following necessary safety measures would be an extremely challenging operation that would take time to implement. The level of training staff receive has a big impact on the accuracy of the tests, but the plans were only shared with universities this month.

UCU said it was worrying there is no new financial support or guidance for universities to support self-isolating students, especially when some universities' lack of support for students has already led to protests across the country. The union also raised concerns that there were still no plans for the return of students in January.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: 'The flaws in government plans for mass testing are a recipe for chaos that risk spreading the virus.

'The sector was only told about the plans for mass testing this month, yet the dates for them have already changed, suggesting the programme has been rushed with last minute alterations. Not all universities are participating in the scheme, and the government accepts that people with Covid may be told they do not have it. We have grave concerns over how this programme will be carried out, particularly the risk of students being told - incorrectly - they do not have Covid, then relying on their test result to travel home and spend Christmas with vulnerable relatives. The risk of students receiving the wrong test result increases when testers have not been fully trained - rushing these plans makes that more likely.

'The government chose not to listen to us when we warned that the mass movement of students in September risked the nation's safety, and it has ignored requests from its scientists, and UCU, to move learning online to help control the virus. By choosing to continue with in-person learning until the last-minute, ministers are gambling with the safety of staff, students and the nation, betting everything on an untried testing programme, and a mass movement of students in a window shorter than two weeks.

'There is a worrying lack of support for students forced to self-isolate after testing positive. It is not good enough for the government to refer to a non-binding checklist for how universities should support students that was issued in early October, when we have just seen a wave of protests from students opposing how they have been treated.

'If the government continues to insist on in-person teaching in January students travelling back to university would be moving across the country into and out of different tiers. If they are moving back to their term time address it is not clear whether they should follow the rules from the tier they have come from, or the tier they have moved to. UCU is concerned that many students will have spent the holidays in high prevalence Covid areas and then move back to areas of low prevalence and mixing in households, classrooms and lecture theatres. University staff need to be able to plan now for how they will teach and assess students next term but by waiting until the last minute to release guidance for January, ministers are helping to sow the seeds of the turmoil we saw in September.

'This week we filed our legal challenge against the government's decision to ignore SAGE advice to move university learning online to pressure it to stop making these reckless decisions.'

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