Covid-19: End of term isolation will ensure students can go home for Christmas, Williamson announces

Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Daniel Hewitt

Two weeks of self-isolation at the end of term will allow university students to go home at Christmas, the education secretary has announced.

Gavin Williamson told MPs that in-person classes could be cancelled at the end of term and replaced with online learning, so that students can carry out a two week quarantine before heading home.

With thousands currently in self-isolation at education centres around the country, there have been huge concerns that the coronavirus pandemic could force some students to spend the festive period alone at their university residence.

Mr Williamson, acknowledging "anxiety" about the impact of coronavirus restrictions on the Christmas holidays, said the government will work with universities to make sure all students are supported to return home if they choose to do so.

"We are going to work with universities to make sure that all students are supported to return home safely and spend Christmas with their loved ones if they choose to do so."

He said it is "essential" that measures are in place to ensure students can spend Christmas with loved ones.

"Where there are specific circumstances that warrant it, 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 if that is deemed to be necessary.

"My department will publish this guidance shortly so that every student will be able to spend Christmas with their family."

He added: "Where students choose to stay in their university accommodation over Christmas, universities should continue making sure they're safe and well looked after."

Universities have been asked to provide "additional help and practical support" to students, he said, with universities ensuring those isolating are "properly cared for" and can access food, medical and cleaning supplies if needed.

Manchester Metropolitan and Glasgow universities, where thousands are in isolation, are already providing students with food parcels to help them get through the two weeks.

Students, critical MPs and education unions have said those attending university this year are not getting the full experience they paid their £9,250 tuition fee for.

But any hope of the government offering a partial tuition fee refund has been rubbished by the prime minister.

In a speech announcing a new training system for the UK, the prime minister said he hopes students get value for their money but added that tuition fee discount is a "matter for them and their places of education".

Education Secretary Williamson rejected a plea from Labour to have all lessons taught online, saying it is "essential we continue to allow our students to have face-to-face teaching wherever possible".

He acknowledged some lessons can be taught online as part of a "blended learning approach" but said in-person classes are essential for many subjects.

Labour's shadow education secretary Kate Green asked if her counterpart had consulted universities about moving all autumn term teaching online where possible.

Students in isolation, who've plastered their windows with help messages, have been receiving food deliveries from their universities. Credit: PA

She said: "He's right that some courses require face-to-face teaching, but has he considered supporting universities to move all teaching online where this is possible, at least for this first term?"

Ms Green said the situation as students return to university is "desperately worrying", adding that "university staff who have worked so hard over the summer to prepare are anxious and angry that the government didn't keep its part of the bargain".

"They've all been let down by the government just as it let down many of these same students with its handling of exam results last month," she said.

On coronavirus testing, Mr Williamson said it is "right and important" that staff and students are provided the same access to tests if they have symptoms as anyone else.

The update from the education secretary comes as thousands of students at universities across the country are in coronavirus-imposed self-isolation.

Desperate students, who plastered their windows with signs saying "Let us out" and "Send beer," told ITV News it was like prison having to spend two weeks inside a tiny student bedroom.

Around 1,700 students are in isolation in Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), while there are significant coronavirus outbreaks at Glasgow, Edinburgh Napier, Exeter, Dundee and Queen's University Belfast.

ITV News Political Correspondent Daniel Hewitt speaks to isolated students at MMU:

Students at MMU had been asked, in an email from the university, to remove their signs, however, a later tweet from MMU apologised for the request.

The university said: "We apologise for the message sent to our students last night about posters in windows, it didn't reflect the University's view.

"We respect the rights of students to express themselves, but as requested by Greater Manchester Police, the posters must not break the law or they'll have to be removed."