UK universities seek legal and funding clarity over mass Covid testing plan | Coronavirus

UK universities are seeking assurances on funding and protections from being sued before they commit to government plans to get students home for Christmas through a mass testing scheme on campuses.

The testing could begin as early as 30 November under plans detailed in a letter from the universities minister, Michelle Donnelan, who invited vice-chancellors to register their interest by the end of the week.

The planning envisages a week of testing between 30 November and 6 December, ending a few days after the England lockdown is due to finish. Attempts are also being made to ensure the planning would be coordinated across the UK, with civil servants in Scotland holding discussions on Tuesday with universities there for example.

But university authorities are seeking clarity in a number of areas including how they would avoid being left open to the possibility of legal claims.

Details are also being sought about how the initiative will be funded, as well as assurances around validation of test results.

Under the plans, as understood by universities, preparations at testing sites would begin as early as next week while the test kits capable of giving results within an hour would be provided free of charge to universities. It follows pilot schemes at Durham and De Montfort Universities.

Universities UK, which speaks for 140 universities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, welcomed the government’s “ambition” to enhance testing for students and staff.

But it added: “For a major rollout of asymptomatic testing to be successful, universities now need clear assurance of the effectiveness of the tests as well as further details from the government on specific responsibilities under the proposed scheme including the governance, indemnity, resourcing and costs recovery.”

The move towards testing that would also include asymptomatic students marks a change in the position of the government, which has avoided stating that it would do so despite pressure from universities and others.

The prime minister promised on Monday night that guidance for university students wishing to return home for Christmas would be issued soon.

“Clearly we don’t want young people going back and infecting elderly members of their family over the Christmas period,” he said.

The Independent Sage committee of experts warned in a report last week that without careful planning there were likely to be two new Covid-19 outbreaks as students travelled between towns and cities in the UK and internationally to go home for the Christmas break and return again in the new year.

If possible, it recommended that students should self-isolate and/or be tested – ideally twice – before returning home, as well as when at home. Testing capacity must be increased to enable this to happen, it said.

A number of UK universities have been running their own efforts to test students and staff for Covid-19, rather than relying on the much-criticised system being run in England.

There was a warning on Tuesday by a union representing academics and support staff that plans to mass test students “presented huge logistical challenges that may leave staff and students stuck in limbo”.

Jo Grady, the general secretary of the University and College Union, said: “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.”

She reiterated a call – which has also been made by Independent Sage – for the government to tell universities to immediately move all non-essential in-person teaching online.


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