Health Secretary Matt Hancock has refused to rule out a Christmas lockdown for students in the UK.
In the event of campus outbreaks, students could be told to stay at their universities and not return home for Christmas to avoid infecting their parents and grandparents.
This comes after 124 students at Glasgow University tested positive for Covid-19, with 600 people now self-isolating.
In response to a question on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme about whether students would be asked to stay in their university towns at Christmas, Mr Hancock said he had “learned not to rule things out”.
He said: “I don’t want to have a situation like that and I very much hope we can avoid it. We have said through that our goal is to suppress the virus, whilst protecting the economy and protecting education.
“And protecting people in education whether it’s school or university is obviously critical as is protecting the economy.
“In terms of universities, we are working very closely with them to try to make sure the students are safe, but that they can also get their education.
“I’ve learned not to rule things out and one of the challenges that we have is how to make sure people as are safe as possible. This is not our goal, I don’t want to leave you with the expectation – but we have to work on all contingencies at the moment.”
I’ve learned not to rule things out and one of the challenges that we have is how to make sure people as are safe as possible.
– Matt Hancock
The minister’s comments were echoed by Greg Fell, director of Public Health for Sheffield, who said: “If students become poorly and then go back home, then that seeds infection in other parts of the country, which adds further pressure to R-0 [the Covid infection rate] nationally.
“Clearly there are going to be times when students do legitimately need to go home for all sorts of reasons. But the recommendation is to stay in place, basically.”
A recent report by the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) warned that students returning home at the end of term risked spreading Covid-19.
The minutes of its 1 September meeting said: “SAGE noted that risks of larger outbreaks spilling over from HE institutions are more likely to occur towards the end of the academic term, coinciding with Christmas and New Year period when students return home.
“This could pose risk to both local communities and families, and will require national oversight, monitoring and decision-making.”
UCU general secretary Dr Jo Grady said this news was evidence that online learning should be the default position for HE learning.
She said: “Students and their parents will be righty worried about being locked down in an unfamiliar area over Christmas.
“Locking students down at Christmas is based on a flawed boarding school vision of university that ignores the fact thousands of students and staff commute every day around the UK to and from university.