University students will face mass coronavirus testing and will be given a six-day ‘travel window’ so they can return home for Christmas.
Classes are also expected to move online by December 9 to enable students to learn remotely for the rest of the term.
Universities minister Michelle Donelan unveiled the plans today amid mounting concerns over some campuses nationally becoming virus hotspots. Unions have been demanding for weeks that all face-to-face teaching is suspended.
Now Keele and Staffordshire universities are being asked to work with local public health officials and transport operators to help plan the Christmas exodus.
Students will be given staggered departure dates between December 3 and 9 so they can get back to their families.
It’s not clear how many of them will have access to testing. But the aim will be to prevent them carrying the virus back with them and potentially infecting elderly relatives. The Government said ‘areas of high prevalence’ will be prioritised for the tests.
The news comes as Staffordshire County Council has confirmed it will be rolling out lateral flow tests for Covid-19, which can give results in under an hour.
Ms Donelan said: “We know this Christmas will feel different, and after this incredibly difficult year, we are absolutely committed to getting students back to their loves one in time for the Christmas break.
“But I know residents in Stoke-on-Trent might wonder how students leaving campus, or those coming back to the area, might affect them.
“I want to reassure everyone that we have worked really hard to find a way to do this for this group, while the limiting the risk of transmission.”
The operation is likely to prove less onerous for Staffordshire University as around 40 per cent of its students currently commute to campus. But hundreds of its students do live in halls of residence and many others are based in student houses in Shelton and Stoke.
Those needing to travel by train or other public transport are being reminded about the rules over wearing face masks.
If any students test positive for Covid-19 during the staggered departure period, they will have to self-isolate for 10 days before travelling.
But the Government said this would still give them enough time to get back for December 25.
The Keele University campus already hosts a nationally-run coronavirus testing facility. And the university has worked with the county council to offer extra testing to asymptomatic students in recent weeks.
Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), said: “We hope the Government is able to properly oversee mass testing of students at the end of term, but there are huge hurdles to overcome to manage this process properly and not leave staff and students stuck in limbo.
“Some of our concerns include whether all universities will be able to take part, how the tests will be administered, who will cover the costs, what the plan is for students who commute to campus daily from their family home, and how students who aren’t able to be tested will travel home safely.”
Dr Grady also called for students to be allowed to continue learning remotely next term and be able to get out of their accommodation contracts if necessary.