Ministers want to place universities in England into lockdown for two weeks before Christmas, with students told to remain on campus and all teaching carried out online, the Guardian has learned.
Under the government’s plan, which is in its early stages, universities would go into lockdown from 8 December until 22 December, when all students would be allowed to return to their home towns.
The move is designed to deliver on Boris Johnson’s pledge to “get students home safely for Christmas” but prevent the spread of the virus by limiting mixing between the student body and wider community in the weeks before more than a million students travel home.
Infection rates in some university cities are significantly higher among students than in the general population. Under the plan, students with Covid-19 or its symptoms, and those who have been in contact with them, would have to remain in their accommodation for as long as their quarantine period demands.
Michelle Donelan, the universities minister for England, is to hold talks with representatives of Universities UK and other higher education leaders on Thursday in an effort to persuade them to back the plan.
Many university leaders are unhappy at the effect the government’s move would have on their own timetables and teaching arrangements, and question the wisdom of putting so many students on the nation’s transport network to travel across the country on the same day.
Vice-chancellors who spoke to the Guardian said they did not have the power to confine students and feared the two-week period would lead to a rise in Covid-19 cases if students had little to do other than socialise.
So far, five universities have each reported more than 1,000 confirmed Covid-19 infections: Nottingham, Manchester, Northumbria, Sheffield and Newcastle. Others are reporting a rapid rise in cases, with more than 600 among students and staff at the University of Birmingham within the last two weeks.
The government’s plan appears not to take into account the different end-of-term dates for some universities. Oxford and Cambridge terms end before 8 December, meaning they would need to keep students in place for a further two weeks or their students would need to be exempted from the requirement.
Jo Grady, the general secretary of the University and College Union, said the government’s plans risked being “unworkable and chaotic” without input from students or staff.
“Instead of this perverse obsession with Christmas, ministers and universities must focus on the here and now. We should be talking about getting people home now, not in two months’ time,” Grady said. “This is a government completely out of touch with the public and seemingly unaware of what happens at universities.”
The dates are the first details of the government’s promised plan to ensure students can return to their families without bringing the coronavirus back into their communities, as the government’s scientific advisers have warned might happen.Last month the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) told ministers: “A critical risk is a large number of infected students seeding outbreaks across the UK, influencing national transmission … Peak health impacts of these new infections and outbreaks they spark would coincide with the Christmas and new year period, posing a significant risk to both extended families and local communities.”
Asked by the BBC last month whether students would have to remain on campus over Christmas, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, said he had “learned not to rule things out”. But after an outcry, Johnson and the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, rushed to reassure students and their families.
Johnson told a press conference two weeks ago: “I can assure everybody at university that there are plans to get students home safely for Christmas,” while Williamson said the Department for Education would issue guidance “so that every student will be able to spend Christmas with their family”.
Williamson told parliament that in some circumstances “there may be a requirement for some students to self-isolate at the end of term, and we will be working with the sector to ensure this will be possible, including ending in-person learning early if that is deemed to be necessary”.
On Monday it emerged that Sage had recommended university and college teaching should be online “unless face-to-face teaching is absolutely essential” until the the virus subsides.