University campuses will remain open during England’s second coronavirus lockdown, Boris Johnson has confirmed, but institutions have been urged to move more teaching online and on-campus students have been barred from going home.
The University and College Union said that the prime minister was “gambling with the health of the nation” by refusing to move teaching online.
But Mr Johnson said that keeping people in education was his “priority”, and that “we cannot let this virus damage our children’s futures even more than it has already”.
In a statement on 31 October, the prime minister said that pubs, restaurants and entertainment venues would be required to close for four weeks from 5 November.
People are being told to stay at home wherever possible, but will be allowed to leave for work which cannot be done from home or education.
Alongside universities, and unlike during the first lockdown earlier this year, schools and colleges will also continue in-person teaching.
“My priority, our priority, remains keeping people in education – so childcare, early years settings, schools, colleges and universities will all remain open…We cannot let this virus damage our children’s futures even more than it has already,” Mr Johnson said.
However, government guidance published after Mr Johnson’s speech said that universities should “consider moving to increased levels of online learning where possible”.
A number of universities have already moved most of their teaching online temporarily in response to large numbers of Covid cases on campus.
Under “further restrictions”, the guidance adds: “If you live at university, you must not move back and forward between your permanent home and student home during term time. You should only return home at the end of term for Christmas. We will publish further guidance on the end of term.”
Students moving between campuses and their home communities has been identified as a significant Covid spread risk by the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), but ministers have been warned that a leaked plan to put all students at English universities in a two-week lockdown from 8 December would be “unworkable”.
The decision to keep students on campus was criticised by the UCU, which said that it had collated more than 35,000 Covid-19 cases on campuses across the UK and has launched a legal challenge to the government’s refusal to follow Sage’s advice to move teaching online.
Jo Grady, the union’s general secretary, said that public health was being “being put at risk because of this government’s insistence that universities must continue with in-person teaching”.
“The prime minister is gambling with the health of the nation…Half-measures that keep campuses open do not represent a full lockdown,” Dr Grady said.
On higher education, England is following the approach taken in Wales, where ministers said that universities would be allowed to continue offering in-person teaching during a two-week “firebreak” lockdown, which is due to end on 9 November.
Mr Johnson, who had previously advocated a system of tiered regional restrictions, said that national action was needed to prevent a “medical and moral disaster” for the NHS, which risks running out of capacity as coronavirus cases rise across England.