Follow coronavirus restrictions and students 'should' be allowed home for Christmas, minister says

Video report by ITV News Correspondent Rebecca Barry

University students in England will be allowed home to their families at Christmas if everyone follows the latest coronavirus restrictions, a Cabinet minister has said.

Meanwhile Scotland's education secretary said his government's aim was to ensure students will be able to return home for Christmas.

It comes after Labour called on the government to "promise" students that they would not be forced to remain at university when term ends, in a bid to stop Covid-19 cases rising.

While Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden did not guarantee university students would be able to return home for the festive period, he told Sky News: "I very much want students to be able to go home at Christmas, and if we all pull together and observe these new rules, we follow the guidance, then we will be able to get to a point where that should be possible.”

Across the UK, thousands of students are currently confined to their rooms following a surge in cases at institutions including Glasgow, Manchester Metropolitan and Edinburgh Napier.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock last week declined to rule out asking students to stay on campus over Christmas, after government scientific adviser Sir Mark Walport said the measure may be needed to stop the virus spreading to older relatives.

Shadow education secretary Kate Green has written to her opposite number Gavin Williamson, urging him to “promise” students that such restrictions will not be imposed.

Education is devolved across the UK, meaning Mr Williamson only has control in England.

Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green is urging the government to 'promise' students will be allowed home for Christmas. Credit: PA

She said it would be “deeply unfair to see students forced to remain in their student accommodation” and asked Mr Williamson to “work with universities to ensure every student has access to testing to allow a safe journey home” for Christmas.

Ms Green also asked the education secretary to consider a delay to the start of term or a “pause in migration” for universities where term has not yet begun to allow improvements in testing capacity and remote learning provisions.

In a statement, she said: “Leaving home to go to university should be a momentous and exciting step for young people and their families.

"Universities have done all they can to prepare for students’ safe return, but the government has again let young people down.

“It is unthinkable that students will be locked in their rooms and unable to return home to spend Christmas with their families.

"The government must promise that this will not happen, and work with universities to enable every student to access tests so that they can travel home safely.

“The government should also consider a delay to the start of term or a pause in migration for universities where term has not yet begun to allow improvements in testing capacity and remote learning provision.

“Gavin Williamson must urgently come to Parliament and set out how he will resolve the critical situation in our universities that is causing such anxiety for families across the country.”

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

Speaking on Sky News's Sophy Ridge On Sunday, Mr Dowden urged people to stick to the current coronavirus rules to avoid further restrictions.

"The key thing now is that people stick to the existing rules that we have, they observe the ‘rule of six’, ‘hands, face and space’ – people wash their hands, make sure they wear face coverings, particularly indoors, and observe social distancing," the Hertsmere MP said.

“If we do all of those things, we can keep the virus under control, keep our economy open and avoid further restrictions.

“It really is in the power of everyone watching this show to make sure they abide by those rules and prevent further draconian restrictions.”

He added: “No man is an island in this: each person has to take their own responsibilities because it will in turn affect everyone else.

“And the government is taking its responsibility both in terms of ensuring the correct rules are in place, but also for example by ensuring massive amounts of PPE equipment, a huge upsurge in testing capacity.”

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said if restrictions are followed, students should be able to go home for Christmas. Credit: PA

Scotland's education secretary said his government's aim was to ensure students will be able to return home for Christmas.

“It’s a bit of time away (Christmas), but it’s an absolute priority for the Scottish Government that first and foremost students are safe and are supported and are able to participate in their education,” John Swinney said.

“We also want to make sure that students are supported in every aspect of their wellbeing and crucially being able to get back home to families at Christmas time is a really important part of that work and that’s very much at the heart of our thinking.”

Mr Swinney also urged students – even those who test negative for Covid-19 – to stay in their accommodation after hundreds were asked to self isolate due to a spike in coronavirus cases.

He said doing so would minimise the spread of Covid-19 to other parts of the country.

Reports on Sunday claimed that some living in halls of residence had returned to their family home due to the circumstances.

Speaking on the BBC’s Politics Scotland programme, Mr Swinney said: “Our advice to students is that they should stay in their halls if they are able to do so and that’s to ensure that we minimise the spread of the virus around the country.

“It’s important that any student that is self-isolating or students in general in the situation that they are facing are given the full and proper support of the college or the university that is supporting them, and that’s an issue that we’ve prioritised in our discussions with universities in the course of the past few days.”

Mr Swinney said that even students who receive a negative test result for the virus should remain in place.

Scotland's health secretary John Swinney said he hoped students there would be able to return home for Christmas. Credit: PA

In response to Ms Green, a Department for Education spokesperson said: “The government is working closely with universities to ensure they are well prepared for the return of students, and we have published guidance to help them keep students and staff as safe as possible.

“Students should follow the latest health advice, just like the wider public, which means they should stay at university in the event that they have symptoms, have to isolate, there are additional restrictions imposed locally, or there is an outbreak on campus or in their accommodation.

“We will continue monitoring the situation very closely and follow Public Health England advice, adapting policies to best support students and providers.”

Glasgow University said on Saturday that it will refund all students in halls of residence one month’s rent, along with a £50 payment for food, after the outbreak of cases.

More than 17 million people – a quarter of the UK population – will be under tougher coronavirus restrictions later on Sunday as new measures are introduced in Cardiff and Swansea at 6pm.

People will not be able to enter or leave the areas without a reasonable excuse. They will not be able to meet indoors with anyone they do not live with, with extended households suspended.

Bans on households mixing came into force in Wigan, Stockport, Blackpool and Leeds on Saturday, while stricter rules are already in force across large swathes of north-west England, West Yorkshire, the North East and the Midlands, as well as parts of west Scotland.

A ban on households mixing indoors was extended across Northern Ireland earlier this week.