University students may have to remain on campus over Christmas if there are outbreaks of coronavirus, a Government scientific adviser has said.
Sir Mark Walport, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), has warned that students could have to stay in their university accommodation when term ends to ensure the infection does not spread to their parents and grandparents, as well as other parts of the country.
His warning came as freshers in Scotland have been told not to go to pubs this weekend as hundreds of students have been forced to self-isolate at halls of residence following a number of Covid-19 outbreaks.
A number of universities across the UK have introduced their own testing centres on campus ahead of the start of term to ensure students and staff can easily access a test if they start showing symptoms.
Earlier this week, the University of Liverpool confirmed there were already 87 confirmed cases of Covid-19 among students and staff on campus before the autumn term had even begun.
Sir Mark told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Universities are very large communities, they bring together people from across the country and they’re far from monastic communities these days.
“The one thing that we don’t want is for an outbreak of coronavirus in a university to then result in students going home and spreading that infection to other parts of the country and other communities, to their parents, to their grandparents.
“If students are infected when it comes near to the end of term they may have to remain where they are.”
His comments come after Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he was not ruling out the prospect of asking students to stay on campus over Christmas amid coronavirus clusters in university halls.
Scotland’s Higher Education Minister Richard Lochhead has suggested that students across Scotland are not being stigmatised in being told by their universities not to go to pubs this weekend.
Mr Lochhead said the Scottish Government is working with universities and supports the move which was introduced after representatives from the sector met on Thursday.
Universities have also agreed to introduce a “yellow card, red card” system for breaches of student discipline that put students and others at risk, which could result in an end to their studies.
Asked if he can imagine a scenario where students will have to spend Christmas at university, Mr Lochhead said the emphasis was on stopping transmission of the virus on campuses and across Scotland.
He told the Today programme: “So our focus at the moment has to be to suppress the virus, so that we don’t have to take difficult decisions in the future.”
Larissa Kennedy, president of the National Union of Students (NUS), said: “We must not demonise students for the failures of Government.
“Students have done everything they have been asked to do during this pandemic, and are now returning to university campuses in accordance with Government advice.
“It is the Government who now need to put an effective strategy in place to keep Covid-19 under control through mass testing and clear guidance for all students.
She added: “We know that as with any part of society, there will be a small minority of people who might not follow these rules, but universities and colleges already have procedures in place to deal with this.
“It is unjust for students to have to adhere to different rules from the rest of the population, and this will only make the guidance even more confusing and harder to follow.
“Students and young people should not be scapegoated for any outbreaks of coronavirus that they are not responsible for. Not only would this be inaccurate and unfair, it would also create a culture of mistrust that we know would not be beneficial in keeping everyone safe.”
The University of Nottingham is one of a number of institutions which have created their own testing programme for students to try and identify if there is a surge in cases and the need for stricter measures.
Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham, said universities are “particularly high risk settings” with potential for rapid spread of the virus.
Prof Ball said the testing programme was able to identify a single positive case in an asymptomatic person rapidly and “potentially stop an outbreak before it started”.
He said: “If you think about these people aren’t going to have symptoms and yet potentially can spread, then if you’re missing those out of your testing strategy and regime then you’ve got a potential problem.”