Universities told to stagger return of students over five weeks post-Christmas

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson on the reasoning for the staggered return policy

Universities should stagger the return of students over five weeks after Christmas to reduce the transmission of Covid-19, the government has said.

Coronavirus tests should be offered to all students when they return to campus in the new year to help isolate those who are asymptomatic.

Medical students and those on placements or practical courses with a need for in-person teaching in England should return to university between January 4 and January 18, according to the Department for Education (DfE) guidance.

But the remaining students should be offered online lessons from the beginning of term to protect students, staff and local communities.

They will be allowed to return to their university gradually over a two-week period from January 25, the DfE has said.

The guidance has been published hours before the start of the “travel window” in England – where students can return to their families for Christmas.

Many universities are rolling out mass asymptomatic coronavirus testing this week in a bid to get students home safely ahead of the festive break.

The DfE has now said all students should be offered Covid-19 asymptomatic tests when they return to university in the new year.

All universities will be offered testing facilities to give students two rapid lateral flow tests, three days apart, to control the spread of the virus.

Students should restrict contact in the period between their tests – and if they receive a positive test they will have to self-isolate in their accommodation, the DfE said.

The government has also announced a one-off fund of up to £20 million to help students most in need of support in these exceptional circumstances.

A university student takes a test ahead of being allowed to travel home for the Christmas holidays. Credit: PA

Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said: “The health and wellbeing of students, staff and local communities is always our primary concern and this plan will enable a safer return for all students. But we must do this in a way which minimises the risk of transmission.

“I know students have had to make sacrifices this year and have faced a number of challenges, but this staggered return will help to protect students, staff and communities.

“It is so important students have the support they need to continue their education, which is why we are providing up to £20 million funding for those facing hardship in these exceptional times.”

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “I encourage all students to play their part in bringing this virus under control by getting tested twice, and by following the restrictions in place when travelling to and from university this term.”

The DfE has said universities should also consider prioritising students who may need to return to campus earlier for other reasons – such as those who do not have access to appropriate accommodation or study space.

Students who have spent the winter break in Tier 3 areas where mass community testing is on offer should take a test before travelling back to university if possible, the government has suggested.

The guidance says: “While we are confident that the face-to-face teaching element of blended learning can be done in Covid-secure environments, the mass movement of students across the country poses a greater risk for the transmission of infection between areas.”