On Saturday 10 October 2020, writing in the Daily Telegraph, Dominic Gilbert, Camilla Turner and Dominic Penna reported that Covid-19 rates in university towns are more than 40 per cent higher than in the rest of the UK. ...

How the return of students caused 'inevitable' spike in Covid cases

Outbreaks have sparked in dozens of areas over recent weeks as 2.5m students flooded back to university

Covid rates in university towns are over 40 per cent higher than the rest of the UK, an analysis by The Telegraph has revealed.

Virus hotspots are emerging in student areas around the country with the number of new cases up to 38 times higher following freshers’ week, official data shows.

It comes as a leading public health expert warns that students must not be blamed for fuelling outbreaks in their local areas as he says it is “inevitable” that a lot of young people will catch the virus.  

The Telegraph analysed Covid-19 cases before and after the start of Freshers’ week for every university in the UK.  

It reveals the trajectory of new Covid-19 cases is rising more rapidly among areas with student populations, as outbreaks erupt in university halls and teaching is taken online to combat the problem.

On September 1 the average daily rate of infections per 100,000 people in areas with universities was 29.4 per cent higher than areas with no students - likely as those areas tend to be larger cities and urban areas with dense populations.

But since the return of almost 2.5m students across the UK, average infection rates have climbed to 42.4 per cent higher among major university towns and cities, an increase of 13 percentage points.

Close to a quarter of a million students in major university towns including Manchester, Newcastle and Liverpool are now having to study their degrees from the confines of their bedroom after all face-to-face teaching was axed as part of efforts to contain the virus.

Prof Eugene Milne, director of public health for Newcastle where cases are among the highest in the country, warned that the effects of coronavirus rules being broken are “potentially devastating” and urged any students with symptoms to get tested.

But Prof Raj Bhopal, emeritus professor of public health at Edinburgh University, said that students should not be blamed or punished for prompting outbreaks. 

“It is inevitable that a lot of young people will get it and if they do they will build up a level of immunity in their own age group,” he said.

Prof Bhopal said that students might want to “get it over and done with” he warned that they should not be “rushing out” to get the virus.

“I don’t think we are quite ready for that as a society. It has to be a carefully controlled process,” he said.

Where are the new hotspots?

Neighbourhood-level data for local authorities with prominent universities reveals the source of rising infection rates - districts with high concentrations of student accommodation or main campus sites.

According to MSOA (middle layer super output area) data from Public Health England, new infections have risen fastest inpopular student areas since they returned for the new academic year.

New weekly infections in Fallowfield Central rose from just 16 in the week before 33,000 Manchester Metropolitan students returned, to 612 over the last seven days - 38 times higher.

Meanwhile new cases in the University Park, Lenton Abbey and Jubilee Campus areas of Nottingham jumped from five to 504 in the same period, the highest rise in the local authority.

And in Exeter, new confirmed cases in the Pennsylvania and University neighbourhoods rose from six in the week before 25,000 students returned, to 236 over the last seven days.

Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council, said that more than half of people testing positive for coronavirus in Manchester are aged between 17 and 21 and are “predominantly” students.

He said that among students who test positive, the proportion that are asymptomatic is “absolutely enormous”.   While the direct impact on students themselves is relatively small, there is “clearly a risk” they could pass it on to people in age groups who are more vulnerable, he added.

Sir Leese said that a huge amount of work was done in advance to prepare students about what to expect and how to behave when they arrive in Manchester.

“But I think we have to recognise that we are expecting behaviour that for the average 18-year-old is quite difficult really, and we have to be quite realistic about that.”

Fallowfield Central in Manchester is currently the worst-hit student area, with 612 new cases in the week to October 3, according to MSOA data from Public Health England. In total 25 neighbourhood-level student areas saw more than 100 new cases in the latest seven days, including four in Manchester, five in Nottingham and four in Sheffield.

An area is classed as a student area where at least 20 per cent of the population were students in the 2011 census.

In some parts of the country, the infection rate was rising steeply even before students returned, bringing thousands of new people into already high-risk areas.

Newcastle's infection rate had risen from nine per 100,000 to 30 in the fortnight before the first students arrived back, and doubled over the following ten days to 62 cases per 100,000.

But elsewhere, cases were low to begin with but shot up in the aftermath of students’ arrival.

In Exeter, where the daily infection rate was 1.5 per 100,000 people before students returned, rates started rising five days after freshers’ week began and reached 38 per 100,000 after 18 days.

Oxford was seeing rates of three per 100,000 as students came back to their homes and halls, but 20 days later it had risen four-fold to 12 per 100,000.

In other student areas the problem has not yet set in, but worrying signs are emerging.

In Norwich, where around 17,000 University of East Anglia (UEA) students returned on September 21, the rate of infections rose from 1.2 to 4.7 cases per 100,000 over the following 19 days, reversing a downward trajectory in the city.

Students have accused universities of misleading them over what to expect this year. with the National Union of Students saying: "It is clear that students have been mis-sold their experience this term by universities forced to prioritise their income over the health of their staff and students.”  

Not every town or city with a major university has seen the return of students impact its numbers of new cases.

The Telegraph analysed cases before and after the official Freshers start date for every university with more than 10,000 students across the UK to gauge the impact of students returning.

Those with fewer than 30,000 students in total across the local authority, or among those which returned later in September, have seen little effect so far - in some cases tracking below the regional average for the area.

The average rate of new cases in towns with smaller student populations - 14 days after students arrived - was 28 per cent lower than the local regional average.

In larger university towns and cities - with 30,000 students or more - the average infection rate was 61 per cent higher than the local regional average a fortnight after Freshers.

There are outliers, specifically areas of London with large universities. Westminster and Camden have universities some of the highest student numbers - including Kings College London and University College London - there has been very little movement in infection rates.

It could be a result of testing capacity being routed to areas of concern further north, or a more dispersed student population.

Overall across the UK, new cases have risen in almost every local authority throughout September.

While the problem may not be attributed to students alone - in many areas the combination of introducing a new population into already high-risk areas is proving problematic.

Among the ten areas of the UK which have seen the largest rises in infection rates between September 1 and October 1, just four have student populations.

And of the two areas where rates have fallen - Corby and Buckingham - one has a university, although the 11,000 Buckinghamshire New University students only returned on September 21.

Newcastle, Nottingham, Manchester Metropolitan universities and UEA said they all have Covid-secure arrangements in place to make sure their campuses are as safe as possible, adding that they remind students to follow official guidelines on social distancing.

They said that they are following the advice of local public health officials to protect their students and staff. Nottingham and UEA said they are both running asymptomatic testing programmes for students in an attempt to catch cases earlier before they spread.


 Editor's Note:

The text of the article (and which has been reproduced here) was published with associated graphics on Saturday 10 October 2020. A modified version of the article has appeared in hard copy in the Sunday Telegraph (11 October 2020) along with new graphics illustrating the argument. It has not been possible to reproduce either set of graphics. Consequently, the full impact of the article, whether on-line (where access is via a paywall) or in hard copy is somewhat limited.