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University lockdown for two weeks before Christmas ‘too late’ to halt spread of Covid, scientist warns

Locking down universities for two weeks prior to Christmas may not be enough to prevent widespread Covid-19 infections, a top scientist has warned. 

The Government is understood to be considering a two-week lockdown for universities in England before Christmas to stop students taking coronavirus home to their communities.   

Such a move – which is set to be discussed with university leaders on Thursday – is likely to involve all teaching moving online for the end of term and students being told not to mix outside their households. 

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However, Dr Ellen Brooks-Pollock, an epidemiologist from the University of Bristol, said tuition might have to be moved online earlier to be effective. 

‘It needs to happen early’

Dr Brooks-Pollock sits on the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours, a sub-group of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage). 

She told the BBC’s Today programme: “Our analysis suggests that reducing face-to-face teaching to essential teaching only does have the impact of slowing down the rate of spread and preventing more disseminated outbreaks. 

“However, it needs to happen early on in the outbreak because if infection is already widespread then having this quiet period at the end of term is unlikely to prevent outbreaks within halls of residence. 

Sage urged ministers on 21 September to shift all university teaching online but the Government has so far resisted issuing a blanket order (Photo: Danny Lawson/PA)

‘It’s too late’

“Two weeks might be enough for students living in smaller households, living with two or three other people, but in these halls of residence where there’s really a lot of people living together it could just lead to an outbreak in those halls of residence. 

“And if there’s already disseminated infections, many of which are unobserved, two weeks wouldn’t be long enough at the end of term – it’s too late essentially.” 

Sage urged ministers on 21 September to shift all university teaching online – a move long called for by the University and College Union – but the Government has so far resisted issuing a blanket order. 

A sign in one the windows at Ranmoor/Endcliffe student accommodation at the University of Sheffield. Ministers are considering imposing fresh regional restrictions amid a spike in coronavirus cases in northern England (Photo: Danny Lawson/PA)

‘Perverse’ Christmas obession

Responding to the two week lockdown proposal, Dr Jo Grady, UCU’s general secretary, said: “New measures are necessary and quite urgent… there’s a real perverse obsession with Christmas, but this is a problem that needs a solution to be formulated now.” 

“The Government’s imposed lockdown period of 8th to 22nd December cuts across a very important Jewish festival, this isn’t just about Christmas,” she said. 

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“Focusing on two weeks to get everyone back on 22nd December is not the focus this government needs to have now. It needs to be looking at what we do now because we know with this virus what we do now affects what happens in the coming weeks.” 

The Department for Education said: “All students will be able to go home at Christmas if they so choose. If students are travelling home, we must ensure they do so in a way which minimises the risks of spreading the virus, and the date when universities must stop in-person teaching will be an important part of this. We will set out details on this shortly. 

“We have issued clear guidance setting out four tiers of restrictions for education settings, and continue to work closely with universities and public health officials to make decisions about what measures need to be applied.”