University town residents fear Covid-19 spikes as students return, poll finds

Research was carried out across England for the University and College Union.

A group of university students
A group of university students

More than half of people living in university towns and cities fear the return of students will lead to coronavirus spikes and restrictions in their area, according to a survey.

Tens of thousands of students are due back on campus in the coming days, and earlier this month Government scientific advisers warned it is “highly likely” there will be significant coronavirus outbreaks linked to universities.

A new poll has now suggested 57% of people fear local restrictions will result, with nearly half (48%) indicating they will blame the Government.

New students urged to curb antics
Students have been discouraged from taking part in fresher week activities (Joe Giddens/PA)

The Survation poll, carried out for the University and College Union (UCU), also found half of respondents believe universities should cancel all face-to-face teaching, with 57% expressing a lack of confidence in local Test and Trace systems to control outbreaks.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said online learning needs to be the default position and the Government and universities must “stop selling the lie to students that they can have a full university experience in the current crisis”.

She added: “Vice-chancellors are in denial and creating hygiene theatre to pretend institutions are safe. It cannot be business as normal at the moment and they need to stop pretending that is a credible option.

“People do not want to see local outbreaks on their doorstep.

“With the Test and Trace system in England at breaking point it is no wonder that the public do not have confidence in the system or this Government.

“Without a nationally co-ordinated, comprehensive testing system in place, universities and colleges simply will not be able to cope with outbreaks or potential outbreaks.”

Earlier this month, scientists from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) warned social interactions and accommodation are likely to be a “high-risk environment” for transmission to occur – and asymptomatic cases among students may make it harder to detect.

Universities should consider providing dedicated accommodation facilities to enable students who test positive to effectively isolate and minimise the risk of an outbreak, the scientists said.

The Sage paper said: “There is a significant risk that HE (higher education) could amplify local and national transmission, and this requires national oversight.

“A critical risk is a large number of infected students seeding outbreaks across the UK, influencing national transmission.”

Ms Grady added: “Our main objective is to help avert a preventable public health crisis.

“But if our members are concerned with how their college or university is behaving, we will back them if they vote to move into dispute, which could result in ballots for industrial action.”

The online Survation poll was conducted between September 11 and 14 with responses from 1,012 residents aged 18 or over living in 25 university towns and cities in England, said the UCU.

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “We have already seen universities put in place a range of protective measures, such as limiting travel into campus, staggering class times over extended days, and reinforcing hand hygiene.

“Our updated HE guidance includes advice on what a provider should do in the event of a local lockdown, track and trace procedures, the creation of new households in student accommodation and reflects the latest social gathering restrictions.

“Opening universities is a part of the Prime Minister’s cautious roadmap, and it is important that we continue to open education settings wherever it is safe to do so.

“We support face-to-face teaching only where possible and if safety guidelines are followed, but know that high-quality online teaching can also be delivered if necessary.”

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