All university students ‘should be tested for Covid-19 as they arrive on campus’

Universities should test all students and staff for Covid-19 as they arrive on campus and avoid face-to-face teaching, a group of scientists has said.

All courses should be offered online − apart from those which are lab or practice-based − as in-person teaching carries a higher risk of Covid-19 transmission, according to a report from Independent Sage.

The recommendation comes after two US universities, the University of North Carolina and the University of Notre Dame, were forced to halt on-campus teaching following Covid-19 outbreaks.

Freshers’ week and teaching should be held online at the start of the term, the scientists said.

In a report published on Friday, Independent Sage said socialising among students should be restricted to “residential bubbles” in the first few weeks to prevent infection.

It comes as universities minister Michelle Donelan wrote to vice-chancellors requesting flexibility around admissions and asking them to honour all offers accepted following the A-level grading U-turn.

Around 15,000 students who were rejected by their first-choice university will now meet the offer conditions set for them to study after the policy change.

The Independent Sage team was set up by former Government chief scientific adviser Sir David King after the official Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) faced criticism over transparency.

The independent group is calling for mandatory testing of UK students “either before they come to campus or as soon as they arrive”. It added that all university staff should be tested at the start of term.

Where face-to-face teaching is required, students should wear face masks, the group said.

Government advice on how to reopen campuses safely amid Covid-19 does not include recommendations for compulsory testing or face coverings.

Professor Liz Stokoe, co-author of the report, said: “It’s hugely important that universities are reopened, but students will be travelling from all over the country and the world – that will create risks of infection transmission, and so it is essential to put detailed procedures in place so as to guarantee a safe return.

“This is essential for the welfare of students, of staff and the wider community.

“It would be disastrous if universities were forced to close as we’ve seen happen in the US, so we are urging them to play safe and work with students to mitigate the risks.”

Universities UK (UUK) said many of the recommendations are already being adopted by universities.

A spokesman said: “There is a careful balancing of the risk of any potential future national or local lockdowns and ensuring that young people – who have faced incredible disruption during the pandemic – can continue with their education.

“Universities have consulted students and staff about the blended approach, and are working with the university community to encourage responsible behaviours.

“Universities are working in partnership with their local authorities, public health bodies and others to ensure that effective and rapid outbreak response plans are in place and clearly understood.

“This includes ensuring that students or staff showing symptoms of Covid-19 have access to local testing and are supported to self-isolate – and we welcome this report’s focus on the need for clarity about testing for universities.”