Research Stagger
Image: The Boar / Abbey Parker

Research suggests staggering university return will only delay infection spike 

Research undertaken by scientists from UK universities has suggested that staggering the in-person return of universities would only delay infection numbers.

Universities were already implementing a gradual return of students to their university residences before the third lockdown national lockdown was implemented.

Research conducted by the University of Cambridge and the University of Warwick highlight that all students returning at once is unlikely to cause a large spike in infections.

The government has called for universities to put in place measures to stagger the return of students on practical courses that are allowed to return from 8 March.

Researchers from nine UK universities have stated that the scale of the outbreaks of Covid-19 seen in the autumn “varied considerably from campus to campus”.

Dr Mike Tildesley, reader in mathematics at the University of Warwick, has advised that “hitting the breaks” on students returning to campus will be more effective than a controlled return if local infections spike.

Researchers also from the University of Cambridge and the University of Warwick conducted studies that highlighted that staggered returns would have “limited value” in greatly decreasing the infection rate of Covid-19. 

Under the presence of a new variant that’s more transmissible of any kind, then regular mass testing will have a decreased ability to really control case numbers and control outbreaks

– Professor Julia Gog

Instead of extending the return time for students, there have been suggestions for other control systems to be put in place that would also hinder any significant rise in infections. 

Lateral Flow Testing has been suggested as a critical tool at bringing the infection rate among students back under control, and is backed by researchers as a valuable way to “stop major virus outbreaks”. 

Research has found that cases over time were a lot higher if regular asymptomatic testing was not introduced but this model did not factor in the “more transmissible variants” that have recently been discovered in the UK.   

Professor Julia Gog said: “Under the presence of a new variant that’s more transmissible of any kind, then regular mass testing will have a decreased ability to really control case numbers and control outbreaks.”

Other control variables suggested have been having students return over a 14- or 28-day period or having individuals return in three weekend “pulses”.

The research depicted that staggering may be beneficial in the “short term and for organisational purposes, but for the long-term, prolonging the return will only lead to a delay in increased infection”.  

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