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Are universities becoming the next Covid-19 hotspot?

When students across the UK returned home for the Easter break, few expected to not see their campuses again until October. But the coronavirus pandemic changed everyone’s plans almost overnight, and suddenly we were at home for months, allowed out only for our daily dose of exercise. Now, with restrictions lifted, students have returned to universities. But with a second wave of infections across the country, many fear that universities are becoming the next coronavirus hotspot?

Universities seem like a prime spot for the spread of infections. Thousands of young people are spending time in close contact with different people. Whether it’s in lectures, seminars, university accommodation, societies and the local community, it only takes  one asymptomatic carrier to put the university at risk of an outbreak. Add to that the fact that students are not renowned for being the most health-conscious or responsible population group, hence concerns about the risks the start of term might pose.

Even before courses started, movement of high volumes of people around the country was a source of concern for many. While many international students had to self-isolate for two weeks, this wasn’t the case for those from the UK. For example, imagine an asymptomatic but contagious student from an area with a high infection rate moving back to their university town. Maybe on their first day they’ll get the bus into town to pop to the supermarket and meet a friend in a café – innocuous activities under the current guidelines. Already they’ve spread the virus to a considerable number of people, many of whom may be elderly or otherwise vulnerable. Now picture this scenario on a national scale, as over a million students move around the country.

Jo Grady, of the national UCU, representing 20,000 academics, lecturers and university workers, said this movement of students into university cities “risks doing untold damage to people’s health and exacerbating the worst public health crisis of our lifetimes”, warning that she expects a “silent avalanche of infections”. A report published by the government’s scientific advisory group, Sage, said that students’ return to university “could amplify local and national transmission”, explaining that: “It is highly likely that there will be significant outbreaks associated with higher education, and asymptomatic transmission may make these harder to detect,” the report added.

With term already having started, even more potentially risky scenarios have risen, although a variety of public health measures have been implemented. Most universities, including Warwick, have moved lectures online for Term 1, a positive step in limiting the times at which large numbers of students will need to be in proximity with little capability for social distancing. Seminars are socially distanced, and masks are compulsory when in any enclosed university space. Societies’ in-person activities have been heavily restricted by the Students’ Union. Masks and thermometers are also being provided for all students.

Despite the introduction of similar measures, evidence from the US suggests that we are likely to see an increase in Covid cases in areas surrounding university campuses. A study by The New York Times surveyed over 1500 colleges, and found over 51,000 cases since the start of the pandemic, with more than 24,000 reported since late August. At the University of Alabama, over a thousand new cases were found in the first two weeks of term. Back in the UK, as pupils returned to school at the start of September, cases have spiked and some schools have been forced to close once again.

Warwick UCU have therefore released a statement calling for all Autumn teaching to be moved online, warning of the potential for universities to become the “care homes of the second wave”. It highlights issues including the potential for spread into the local community, as well as flaws in the University’s procedures, such as only reporting confirmed cases and the risk of spread before test results are available. The problem of poorly ventilated seminar rooms with inadequate sanitation plans is also highlighted.

As it stands, a report from The Boar has revealed that there are 216 active cases at Warwick at the time of writing. 187 of these are on campus, while 29 are off campus. 

There are 216 active cases at Warwick at the time of writing

However, it would seem that the biggest risks are likely to be found in unofficial activities not linked to either the University or the Students’ Union. It is unrealistic to expect students to spend upwards of 90% of their waking hours alone in their rooms, and so social events are an inevitability. 

Stereotypes suggest that students are a group unlikely to follow rules, especially ones they view as being for the benefit of others and a hindrance to themselves. Dame Anne Johnson, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at University College London told the BBC that we are “now seeing the highest number of infections[…]in younger people aged 20 to 29”. Experts argue that this is likely to be linked to more relaxed attitudes to social distancing and hygiene measures among younger age groups. Gabriel Scally, visiting professor of public health at Bristol University and a member of the Independent Sage committee, told The Guardian that issues will be inevitable: “Young people, particularly in that age group, tend to think they’re invulnerable. There will be a lot of people very excited, living away from home with a whole new range of people. It is a really very serious potential problem for the spread of the virus and an upsurge this autumn”. 

Stereotypes suggest that students are a group unlikely to follow rules, especially ones they view as being for the benefit of others and a hindrance to themselves

The university, however, has several measures in place to minimize the spread of the virus, as well as to ensure safety for all on campus. On the university coronavirus safety page, it states that “guidance will necessarily continue to change in response to infection rates, so we’ve planned for many different scenarios. This means we can ensure the wellbeing of our community by responding to any changes flexibly and swiftly”. In addition, the site provides information and resources on how to stay safe, and what to do in the case of contracting covid. Additionally, a test and trace centre has been set up on campus for students and staff. 

How true is this? According to a recent survey of Warwick students by The Boar, around 65% have not always been following government guidelines like social distancing over the summer break. Nearly 60% would consider attending parties in friends’ accommodation, which is specifically banned on campus; government guidelines currently specify that you may only meet with one other household indoors. A small percentage also say they will not wear a mask where required, despite not having a valid exemption. 10% stated that they would not fully self isolate if required to do so, or would only do so if they themselves had symptoms.

These figures can be linked to the perception of risk. Around a third of students expect the risk of contracting Covid on campus to be small or close to zero. Only 7% are very worried about catching coronavirus themselves, but most are more concerned regarding transmission into the local community, with 80% being ‘very’ or ‘quite’ worried. There were few noticeable differences between year groups, although our sample was too small to show this accurately. However, first-years did appear to be less concerned about transmission into the local community, presumably because they would expect to stay largely on campus.

Overall, it seems that students’ adherence to measures designed to prevent the spread of Covid may be poor. While some measures, like wearing a mask, are easy to enforce, responses suggest that some students may continue to ignore restrictions that the University would find harder to police, like social distancing and self-isolation.

There is only so much that the University or government can do to limit the potential for the spread of coronavirus; it is then up to the university community to follow the guidance. Unless students begin to take the issue more seriously, a surge in coronavirus cases is inevitable.

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