Others are spending millions of pounds setting up their own testing and traceability systems to identify outbreaks on campus. Strict disciplinary measures for students who flout social distancing rules are also being introduced.
Across England, one in 500 people would have had Covid-19 last week, with the number of daily coronavirus infections tripling in two weeks according to the Office for National Statistics. The R number (reproduction) was set to 1.2-1.5 for England and the United Kingdom.
More than 20 million people – 30% of the UK – face tightened lockdown restrictions after additional restrictions were announced in Leeds, Blackpool, Stockport, Cardiff and Swansea.
Epidemics have hit 23 universities, forcing thousands of students into self-isolation. Hundreds of coronavirus cases have been confirmed on campuses, including 172 at the University of Glasgow and 120 at Napier University in Edinburgh.
In an interview with The Guardian, Grady said the sharp rise in cases at Scottish universities – which reopened earlier than those in the rest of the UK – showed insufficient testing and tracing to protect staff and students. She called for in-person teaching to be dropped where possible until the system can be fixed.
Grady urged university leaders to act now to abandon face-to-face classes and potentially allow students to return home. ” Yes [vice-chancellors] do nothing now, all their efforts will be canceled in a few weeks because the number of infections will be so high, or there will not be enough staff to teach, ”she said.
“There is an urgency about this that did not exist a month ago, as we are seeing infection rates rise and there is the danger that students will simply become incubators.
“But until there is an effective UK-wide test and trace program, there will be cases everywhere. Even though you have a stand-alone university campus with a relatively small number of students, you continue to bring together people from all over the UK and staff who teach at multiple institutions moving between them.
The University of Leeds became the last to be online only unless education was deemed safe and necessary. Six of its students have tested positive for Covid-19 and the city of Leeds will go into a local lockdown from midnight, meaning most students will not be able to visit their families.
It has emerged that 12 universities in England and Wales are trying to tackle possible closures by continuing their testing programs and, in some cases, with their own research teams and mechanisms on campus.
As university leaders publicly say their bespoke systems are to complement the £ 10bn NHS testing and tracing program, they privately complain that they were forced to institute campus testing because it it will be impossible to guarantee that thousands of students can be tested. .
The University of Cambridge plans to test all students living in university accommodation each week, while the University of Exeter has invested in rapid saliva testing facilities.
Imperial College London has gone further and implemented campus-wide tracing, with a ‘Covid-19 contact tracing hub’. Students who return positive tests will be contacted and asked to provide details of those with whom they have had close contact, including “intimate physical or sexual contact” or skin-to-skin contact, as well as anyone with whom they have had close contact. spent at least one minute within 1 meter.
Alastair Sim, director of the universities of Scotland, said the governments of England and Scotland could not provide enough tests to universities due to shortages caused by the reopening of schools.
“There was a big spike with the return from schools and I think the testing capacity was, I wouldn’t say overwhelmed, but definitely stretched [in a way] it wasn’t really planned. The government, and it’s both governments, couldn’t offer testing to many students, ”he told the BBC.
The University of Salford, which has reported 20 infections among students, is among those using its own test and trace system, known as Sprout. But it has yet to sync with class rosters, meaning students had to report to staff if they were symptomatic or if they were living with someone who was.
In Salford, student gatherings in the halls were reportedly interrupted by security personnel. “They’ve been on hold for so long and obviously have gone a little bit crazy like the first few years do and now they’re facing this,” one speaker said. “The staff are really worried, none of us want to go back to face-to-face learning. We are the ones with the risk factors, rather than the 18, 19 and 20 year olds. ”
The University of Southampton has developed its own rapid response saliva test and will test all incoming students and staff upon their arrival on campus.
The Universities of Liverpool and Manchester have switched to online teaching, with only clinical subjects keeping the courses in person in most cases.
Manchester universities are preparing to crack down on illegal gatherings with strict measures, including the potential expulsion of students who violate social distancing rules and the imposition of curfews on residences.
The University of Manchester has so far taken disciplinary action against 200 students for violating social distancing guidelines, while several have also received fixed penalty notices of £ 100 from police.
A spokesperson for the university said it viewed imposing a curfew on students living in the hallways as a “last resort,” but “if residents do not obey social distancing rules, we will have no other alternative ”.
A government spokesperson said: “Testing capacity is the highest ever, but we are seeing significant demand for testing. It is essential that staff and students only get tested if they develop symptoms of coronavirus.
“Our universities are home to cutting edge science and innovation, but for those who produce their own tests, it’s important that the process works with the national system so that we know what’s going on and where, so we can use it. for public safety. ”
In Scotland, there has been intense criticism and growing confusion around new restrictions announced by universities, including a ban on going out this weekend, which the country’s commissioner for children and young people said raised ” concerning the implications of human rights ”.
Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon has confirmed that the ban on visiting bars, cafes or restaurants this weekend applies to all students in Scotland, even those studying part-time or living outside university residences .
But she hinted at a turnaround on the advice of government clinical director Jason Leitch, who said the students were not allowed to return to their family homes, saying there would be other directions over the weekend. Speaking directly to the students during his daily briefing, Sturgeon told them, “I know you might feel like you are somehow being blamed… it’s not your fault.”