Reopening of universities 'could spark Covid second wave', union warns

Video report by ITV News Correspondent Juliet Bremner

A second wave of coronavirus could flourish if around one million students from across the country head to universities next month, a leading education union has warned.

The University and College Union (UCU) says the government is “encouraging a public health crisis” by allowing hundreds of thousands of students to travel hundreds of miles to study on campus.

The union has concerns campuses could become breeding grounds for Covid-19, with a mass movement of students potentially bringing the virus to environments where social distancing may be more difficult.

UCU General Secretary Jo Grady told ITV News the mass movement could result in universities becoming "transmission hot-spots of Covid-19".

Many cities which have large student populations have seen increases in coronavirus cases in recent weeks.

"Manchester would see about 100,000 students arrive, Birmingham 80,000, Leicester 40,000," Ms Grady said.

"There is currently no track and trace so we don't know who might be moving out of a locked-down area in to another locked-down area.

"There's no mandatory UK-wide testing when people arrive and we think this has the potential for universities to be transmission hot-spots of Covid-19."

Following the U-turn in A-level grading resulting in higher grades, a tough jobs market and a lack of opportunity to go travelling, more students are likely to go to university this year, resulting in difficulties social distancing, Political Correspondent Shehab Khan says.

She also accused the government of a lack of planning, with more students expected on campuses following the admissions fiasco as data emerges that infection rates are increasing among younger people.

"We haven't seen any information from the government about how Covid-19 should be dealt with on campus.

"We've had universities developing their own guidelines," Ms Grady said.

The UCU wants students to avoid campuses until Christmas unless a testing scheme begins operating at universities.

"Given that young people can be asymptomatic, we really don't think you should be encouraging one million people to migrate around the country and move in to university towns," she said.

Ms Grady continued that US students went back to universities a couple of weeks ago and this had resulted in a spike in cases.

"We're not here to spoil everyone's fun, we just want everyone to be safe," Ms Grady said.

"We haven't seen any evidence it's safe for anyone: students, staff or university towns.

"We have the opportunity to act in the next few weeks to influence our future"

Millions of students will also return to school next week. Credit: Number 10

The government has also been accused of putting school and college teachers in an "incredibly difficult" position by providing guidance for their reopening late on Friday, on a bank holiday weekend, with millions of pupils returning to class on Tuesday.

The National Education Union (NEU) said the guidance should have been received "months ago," describing the nature of the decision making as "simply unacceptable".

The guidance has various measures which can be employed by schools if there is a potential case of coronavirus on site, or if the school is in an area of local lockdown.

It comes after a group of scientists recommended universities test all students and staff for coronavirus as they arrive on campus and avoid face-to-face teaching.

Independent Sage reported on August 21 that all courses should be offered online − apart from those which are lab or practice-based − as in-person teaching carries a higher risk of virus transmission.