Student Covid tests for Christmas holiday from 30 November

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News family and education correspondent

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Image source, Jacob King

Covid tests for students in England, so they can go home safely for Christmas, could begin on 30 November, according to a letter from the universities minister to vice chancellors.

A week of mass testing for students is proposed - running between 30 November and 6 December.

The letter, seen by the BBC, promises a fast turnaround for tests and "results within an hour".

The aim is to stop students spreading the virus as they return home.

The first week of December, after the lockdown ends, could then become the "travel window" for many students to leave university for the Christmas holidays, with face-to-face teaching expected to finish earlier than usual this term.

This could mean that by about 9 December many students will have left for home.

But those who test positive will have to take another test and, if found to be infectious, have to stay in isolation.

Image source, Andrew Milligan

Larissa Kennedy, president of the National Union of Students, said: "The government have finally listened to our calls to ensure that students can travel home safely for Christmas.

"We particularly welcome this mass-testing approach as it equips students with the knowledge to make informed decisions about travel ahead of the winter break," she said.

'Huge hurdles'

But the University and College Union, which represents university lecturers, said it was not yet clear whether all universities would take part in the testing programme or how many students would be included.

"There are huge hurdles to overcome to manage this process," said union leader Jo Grady.

Around 1.2 million students are expected to move at Christmas from their university term-time address to a home in another part of the country, where there might be different levels of infection.

This has raised concerns among the Sage scientific advisers of a "significant risk" that this migration could spread the coronavirus.

To prevent this danger, plans are being made for mass testing using so-called "lateral flow tests".

These nose and throat swabs are self-administered, with no need for tests to be sent to laboratories for results.

Pilots for this type of rapid testing have already begun at De Montfort and Durham universities. Other universities have been operating their own testing processes, which could also continue.

Image source, PA Media
Image caption,
The tests will be able to provide results within an hour

The letter from Universities Minister Michelle Donelan, and its accompanying documents, says: "The tests we are deploying have a high specificity which means the risk of false positive test results is low.

"Although the test does not detect all positive cases, it works extremely well in finding cases with higher viral loads - which is those who are most infectious.

"As the test is easy to administer and does not require a laboratory, testing can take place on a very regular basis," the letter to university leaders said.

Free testing kits

Accompanying documents show a planning timetable in which sites are prepared for testing from 15 November, ready to operate the following week, with "pre end-of-term testing" between 30 November and 6 December.

The test kits will be given free to universities, which will have to provide a place for the tests to be carried out, in a way that can process thousands of students within a short time frame.

Ministers have already indicated that universities will stop in-person teaching two weeks before the end of term and move online - so when students have been given the all-clear they could be expected to leave their term-time address and go home, in a "test and release" process.

There are also believed to have been discussions about how the departure of students can be made safe - such as co-ordinating staggered times for leaving between universities in the same city.

There could also be calls to avoid public transport - with suggestions of chartering coaches or using private transport, such as parents collecting students, and creating "travel corridors" to control traffic away from universities.

University leaders have previously raised concerns about why this guidance has been left so close to the end of term - and there will be questions about the capacity of universities to be ready in time for the mass testing.

There have also been questions about whether students will return as usual in January or whether there will be a staggered start and more testing, or whether more courses will switch online with some students initially studying from home.

Universities UK welcomed the plans for more testing capacity, but warned that universities would "now need clear assurance of the effectiveness of the tests as well as further details from the government on specific responsibilities under the proposed scheme including the governance, indemnity, resourcing and costs recovery".