Students will face 'police action' if they ignore Covid warnings

Students are warned they will face ‘serious police action’ if they ignore coronavirus warnings and hold big freshers’ events as hundreds of thousands prepare to start university

  • Students are told they will face ‘serious police action’ if they hold mass events
  • New restrictions in England make social gatherings of more than six illegal 
  • Department for Education has published guidance on reopening universities 

Students have been threatened with ‘serious police action’ by the Government if they hold mass Freshers’ events as 510,000 prepare to start university next month.

Universities Minister Michelle Donelan has urged students to ‘act responsibly’ to ensure campuses can remain open in the next academic year.

She warned that police will shut down large events and punish the organisers, following reports some companies have advertised mass social Freshers’ events. 

New restrictions coming into force in England on Monday make social gatherings of more than six people indoors and outdoors, including in pubs, illegal.

Ms Donelan warned students: ‘As a Government, we have clearly set out the consequences for anyone who risks spreading the virus, whether that’s through illicit social gatherings or organising large events.

‘The police and local authorities will take serious action where it is necessary.’ 

‘Health advice only works if we all follow it. 

‘I urge students, just like the wider public, to do their bit and act responsibly to ensure campuses can remain open for them to use and enjoy.’ 

Students have been threatened with ‘serious police action’ by the Government if they hold mass Freshers’ events as 510,000 prepare to start university next month (stock)

Boris Johnson said yesterday: ‘My message to students is simple. Please, for the sake of your education, for your parents’ and your grandparents’ health, wash your hands, cover your face, make space, and don’t socially gather in groups of more than six now and when term starts’ 

It comes as 510,000 young people prepare to start university this autumn, with Freshers’ Weeks starting this week in Scotland and from Monday in England.

The Universities of Greenwich, Leeds Trinity, Coventry and Queen Mary in London are all due to open their campuses to freshers from next Monday.

LSE, Birmingham City, and the Universities of Nottingham and the West of England are expected to hold their Freshers’ Week from September 21. 

Leicester de de Montfort, the University of Bristol, the University of Durham and University College London will host Freshers’ Week from September 28.

Meanwhile, Cambridge and Oxford, Birkbeck and Essex are among the last to host Freshers’ Week for new students from October 5. 

Ministers have been lining up to discourage students excited for Freshers’ Week from socialising in large groups and attending mass events when term starts.

Matt Hancock today pleaded with university students to ‘follow the rules’, telling MPs: ‘If you are a student who is about to return to university or go to university for the first time then please, for the sake of your education and your parents’ and grandparents’ health, follow the rules and don’t gather in groups of more than six.’

At a Downing Street press conference yesterday, Boris Johnson said: ‘My message to students is simple. Please, for the sake of your education, for your parents’ and your grandparents’ health, wash your hands, cover your face, make space, and don’t socially gather in groups of more than six now and when term starts.’  

The warnings come after Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester and chair of the prestigious Russell Group, said students could face exclusions if they do not follow rules on social distancing.  

Addressing the Science and Technology Committee of MPs yesterday, Dame Nancy said ‘we’re strongly stressing to students that they must behave differently’.

When pushed to state what the sanctions would be, she said: ‘Initially a warning of course, potentially something more significant, and ultimately – and I hope it doesn’t come to this – it will be exclusion from the university’. 

New guidance published by the Department for Education (DfE) today states that universities should only offer face-to-face lessons for priority courses and students must not return to their family home if stricter measures become necessary.

Institutions must have a plan in place that ‘assumes there is likely to be an increase in the number of cases, or an outbreak associated with their setting’.

Cambridge says it will offer all students living in college accommodation a weekly coronavirus test after term begins on October 8

Exeter University has announced it is teaming up with commercial test provider Halo to ensure same-day testing at its campuses in Exeter and Cornwall

The updated guidance – published early today – says universities should support students to socialise in Covid-secure environments, like campus bars and students’ unions, and they should identify ‘safer social activities’ for them, the guidance says. 

Ahead of Freshers’ Week, which starts at different times at different campuses, universities have been told not to allow students to have ‘private gatherings’ in halls of residence which exceed the limits for gatherings in private households.

In student accommodation, universities are expected to identify ‘households’ to manage routine contact as safely as possible.

These households in halls of residence would be students living in the same flat or on the same floor who share a kitchen or bathroom.

The guidance adds: ‘The reopening of campuses for academic year 2020 to 2021 will bring about a mass movement of students from across the UK and overseas, with the vast majority moving from other regions into student accommodation in the region in which their HE provider is located. 

‘The creation of many new households brings with it a degree of risk, and we expect providers to take all reasonable actions to minimise this risk.’

But the advice also calls on institutions to ‘consider students’ desire to interact socially and creatively’ with peers as part of their experience.

It says: ‘You could look to designate specific areas (‘creative spaces’) for students to socially and creatively interact beyond the usual teaching environment. These areas could include markings to allow for social distancing or the use of screens.’

Data from the Covid Symptom Tracker app, run by King’s College London, shows there were days in March and April when more than 100,000 cases of coronavirus were estimated to have been caught in the UK. But testing figures were showing fewer than 6,500, meaning that the numbers of cases now cannot be compared like for like, because the currently estimated number of new cases is around 3,200 and many of them are now being picked up by tests, whereas only a vanishingly small number were at the start

Health Secretary Matt Hancock today pleaded with university students to ‘follow the rules’

The advice adds that universities should base their plans for local outbreaks on a four-tier system of restrictions.

Blended learning – a mix of face-to-face tuition and online lessons – has been recommended as the ‘default position’.

It says face coverings should be worn ‘where social distancing is difficult to maintain outside of teaching situations’ – like corridors and communal areas.

Tier two – described as the ‘fallback’ position – advises that universities should move to an increased level of online learning where possible.

Tier three calls for institutions only to retain face-to-face provision for priority courses and ‘in as limited number of situations as possible’.

At this stage, it says students should not return to their family home to ‘reduce the risk of transmitting the virus through travel’.

The last resort would be for university buildings to close to everyone except key workers and for the majority of provision to shift online.

Elite universities reveal covid testing plans as Exeter signs contract with private company to offer same-day results and Cambridge promises weekly tests for all students 

Some of Britain’s elite universities have revealed their Covid-19 testing plans as Prime Minister Boris Johnson urges them to push on with their academic year despite the coronavirus threat.

With Mr Johnson telling universities not to send students home in the event of a Covid-19 outbreak, at least two prominent institutions have announced testing plans aimed at avoiding major disruptions.

Cambridge says it will offer all students living in college accommodation a weekly coronavirus test after term begins on October 8.

And Exeter University has announced it is teaming up with commercial test provider Halo to ensure same-day testing at its campuses in Exeter and Cornwall.

Cambridge said it would go beyond Government guidance and offer testing to students even if they show no symptoms.

Sample swabs, from the nose and throat, will be pooled by college household, allowing the university to reduce the number of tests required to some 2,000 per week. If a pooled household test is positive, students in the household will be offered individual tests.

‘We look forward to welcoming our students back to Cambridge and want to reassure them – and the wider local community – that we are doing everything we can to make sure they feel safe and supported while they are here,’ Cambridge vice-chancellor Stephen J Toope said in a statement.

‘This screening programme is just one of a number of measures that we are putting in place to keep our University and city safe.’

The University of Exeter said it would work with Halo, the UK’s first commercial provider of saliva-based Covid tests, to offer a simple and fast means of both finding cases and reassuring students who fall ill but are not infected.  

Responding to the DfE guidance, Universities UK chief executive Alistair Jarvis told MailOnline: ‘The safety of students, staff and the wider community remains the priority for universities and we welcome this additional guidance to support the significant safety measures universities have already introduced and the detailed planning undertaken across the higher education sector. 

‘Throughout the coronavirus pandemic universities have followed – at a minimum – official government and public health advice and today’s government update provides a framework for universities to operate in a way that meets the needs and circumstances of their communities.

‘Universities have been working hard over many months, drawing on expertise from within the sector, external advice, working with government and local partners, and in consultation with student and staff groups, to do everything possible to put in place Covid-secure safety measures for this academic year. 

‘While the wider situation with the virus across the country clearly remains uncertain and fast-moving, universities will continue to work closely with national and local health bodies to ensure robust and adaptable measures for the new term and beyond.

‘Life across all of society will be different this autumn, with university life no exception, with differences to previous years. However, students can look forward to a high-quality, rewarding and enjoyable experience at university this academic year.’ 

It comes after Government scientific advisers warned that significant outbreaks of coronavirus linked to universities are ‘highly likely’ and they risk amplifying the transmission of the disease across the country.

A paper by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), published on Friday, warned such outbreaks could coincide with Christmas and pose ‘a significant risk’ to extended families.

Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said: ‘The safety and wellbeing of university staff and students is our priority.

‘Universities have been making a mammoth effort to safely open campuses and buildings to students this autumn, and the Government has worked closely with them to ensure they are well prepared for the return of students.

‘The updated guidance includes the recent Sage advice and will help university leaders access the information they need, and assist their existing plans to keep students and staff as safe as possible.’

Yesterday committee member Aaron Bell, Tory MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, asked vice-chancellors whether there is guidance on how Covid-secure socialising can take place on campus. 

He said: ‘Is there a danger that if we are too draconian about what happens on campuses themselves we push more students off campus?’

Professor Julia Buckingham, president and chair of Universities UK (UUK) and vice-chancellor of Brunel University, responded: ‘I think universities want to be proportionate in their approach.

‘So while yes we will deal firmly with students, as Nancy indicated we will probably start with a firm warning and if they are repeat offenders then of course we will deal with it much, much more firmly.’

University leaders said they did not believe coronavirus outbreaks would occur as a result of academic lessons restarting this term – but they expressed concerns about student activity off campus.

Dame Nancy said: ‘I’m very confident that there will not be any spread of infections through teaching in our universities. We’ve taken every measure imaginable.

‘Of course one concern for all of us is off-campus behaviour.  

‘And I think we’re all imposing quite strict codes of practice with sanctions if students do not adhere to those. 

‘Because it’s not just the safety of the students and the staff, we’re also concerned to protect the safety of our local residents and our communities.’

Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Glasgow, added that he had ‘little concern’ about the potential spread of coronavirus on campus. 

‘We are minimising the amount of face-to-face contact,’ he said, ‘but as colleagues have also stressed, we’re working very hard to ensure that we stress to our students that their conduct off campus is what they need to be mindful of.’

Professor Buckingham said university leaders are concerned that students will have to ‘travel some distance’ in order to get tested.

She said: ‘We are all looking at ways in which we can improve testing on campus because that is a major issue for all of us.’ 

Matt Hancock told LBC yesterday the Government’s new limitations on social gatherings would apply to students returning for freshers’ week ‘otherwise we know the spread of the disease is going to keep going up and up’.

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