GOVERNMENT SCIENTISTS WARN OF SPREAD OF COVID-19 - LIKE 'FRESHER'S FLU'
Talia Shadwell, reported in the Mirror on Friday 4 September 2020 that ...
UK universities may have 'national lockdown' to stop students infecting families
Students could spread coronavirus back into their hometowns by Christmas if universities don't come up with adequate quarantine and test and trace plans, SAGE warns
Universities could face mini 'lockdowns' in November as government scientists warn coronavirus could spread among students like 'fresher's flu'.
A new report from the government's SAGE advisory group has issued a series of stark warnings about how Covid-19 could spread among student communities.
It says 'significant' outbreaks are likely - and could affect every university campus if Britain's students soon follow school pupils in a return to classes.
The report warns outbreaks at universities could peak in the weeks before Christmas and the New Year - then spread back to students' hometowns as they return for the festive break.
SAGE has suggested regular mass-testing among the options for bringing repeated outbreaks under control.
The report lays bare the difficulty universities face in controlling the virus' deadly spread.
It warns the unique approach to student living - often in college dormitories and large flat-shares - could create silent virus breeding grounds that easily spill out into the wider community.
Evidence shows young people are more likely to be asymptomatic, and students typically socialise widely, and hold part-time jobs - making outbreaks harder to detect, SAGE warns.
It raises the concerns of spread at parties, and the risk entire flats or university classes will need to undergo quarantines.
SAGE also warns student flats in university towns tend to be concentrated in lower-income areas.
It says they could pose a risk to vulnerable and BAME residents living in those communities, who research shows face higher risks of severe Covid-19 illness.
The report also highlights outbreaks like one at the University of Alabama, in the United States, where more than 560 positive cases emerged around a week after classes reopened.
The end of this year could spark a series of similar nationwide outbreaks among UK universities, it says.
The report warns: "For many students, term will end in mid-Deember, which means that the peak health impacts of newly seeded infections due to this mass movement will fall between Christmas and the New Year.
"This is at a point identified nationally as potentially critical forCovid-19 resurgence and with challenges for the health and care system."
It continues: "If students return home normally at the end of term during a large outbreak, or if a university decides to close in response to an outbreak and students return home, this poses a particular risk with large numbers of students travelling at the same time.
"This risk multiplies if outbreaks occur in multiple institutions."
A simulation of an outbreak in a Bristol student population suggested the infection would most likely be concentrated in first-year undergraduates, the report says.
This was due to the number of younger students in the same university halls across different courses, with older year-groups more likely to be living in flatshares.
Student behaviour must be influenced to prevent such outbreaks - with a 'community' message spread by universities to ensure students adjusted their lifestyles, SAGE warns.
Universities were also likely to need to limit in-person interaction in courses where physical presence was 'unnecessary', the report recommended.
'Segmenting' student and staff could make mass quarantining amid outbreaks easier - separated into course, year group, accommodation, or site, SAGE suggests.
The report outlined how 'segmenting' could work: "Rather than quarantining an entire course or halls of residence, use of segments may also means that certain classes or flats can be quarantined instead, minimising wider disruption.
"This is particularly important when considering numbers in quarantine - if there were no controls or segmentation in place, relatively few infections could result in the majority of a university needing to be isolated."
But staff who interact with students across segments could also continue to spread outbreaks, the report warns.
Universities may have to consider rotas for shared facilities, like libraries, it adds.
The report also highlights studies showing sticking to isolation rules was harder on lower income workers.
The report recommends universities and authorities must look at how to make the prospect of quarantine viable for cash-strapped students, and campus workers such as cleaners.
Universities should also consider creating dedicated quarantine facilities with good access to food and medical care, to discourage students and staff from trying to return home when sick, it says.
Face masks, ventilation and cleaning would all likely be needed in any close in-person education courses, SAGE has recommended.
Particular courses where it is harder to maintain social distancing - including performing arts and medical training - would be likely to need more robust anti-spread measures, it continues.
The report also emphasises student mental health issues during the pandemic.
It warns the experience of isolating away from family and friends while undergoing high-pressure studies could be extremely challenging for some students.
SAGE also cautioned that missing out on education, and the knock-on effects for students' and staff careers was already causing significant anxiety.
The report warned students may come from months of lockdown at home to university with differing ideas about the pandemic.
They may have varying cultural or social attitudes, and intolerance to certain rules or behaviour could cultivate a blaming culture.
Universities would need to work on 'stigma' free environments, and should avoid emphasis on enforcement to prevent clashes, the report recommends.
Editor's Note: visit Coronavirus 2020 for links to the SAGE papers, related articles, etc.