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COVID-19 in Universities, widening gaps and ‘Herd Immunity’: SAGE Advice

UPDATE
12th October 2020 

The report of the latest SAGE meeting on COVID-19, from the 21st September 2020 were released today. They confirm what we suspected all along. The government was clearly advised not to open universities and colleges for face-to -face
teaching as one of five serious recommendations. Whilst some of them are only being introduced from today, the universities are not being asked to go online. Despite this, many will be planning to do so as even more students become infected. It surely looks like the government. It surely looks as if No10 is going its own deliberate way. It is noticeable that there was an anonymous observer from No10 (arrowed). However, the notes indicate this was one of several junior officials who were redacted.

Original post from 9th October 2020

The metaphor of a stampede of nearly a million students onto our university campuses in the last few weeks fits well with the notion that ‘herd immunity’ is back on the agenda. What better way to spread the virus than rounding up groups of people, where one might be infected, and herding them into accommodation blocks with shared facilities. That is a sure-fire way of fuelling the spread. After a period of lockdown, with effective spread guaranteed, let them disperse around the rest of the population without testing. At the end of September, the Education Secretary played down the potential risks. A week later, the spread of coronavirus is out of control. It is a mistake to believe that those in charge are so stupid not to realise what they have done. But the alternative is to believe the plan was deliberate. 

The events of the last two weeks make this idea not so fanciful. There were clear warnings to the government that sending students into universities for ‘face to face’ teaching would result in rapid transmission of the virus. This is exactly what happened. Lecturers are being coerced into teaching this way while fearing for their lives and that of their vulnerable relatives. Like so many people facing the public at work, they are also trying to balance keeping their jobs against the risk to themselves and their families. Herd immunity is of course the final goal, but we hope it is achieved through vaccination and not by sacrificing hundreds of thousands of our most vulnerable citizens. 

Seen but not ‘Herd’. 

An open letter known as ‘The Great Barrington Declaration’ emerged in the news today. It was first released on 4th October 2020 by several well-known expert medical scientists, primarily in the USA, the UK, and the EU. Its main suggestion is to release most people from lockdown at this point and let the virus take its course in the population. Only the vulnerable, mostly older people, should be shielded from the infectious general population. They refer to this in the letter as "Focussed Protection". But they fail to model or explain the likely high death rate this strategy would cause.

By today, thousands of scientists, medical doctors and the public have signed online. Perhaps without fully appreciating the implication of such a strategy. Also, by today, there were reports of names such as ‘Mr Banana Rama’ and ‘Dr Johnny Fartpants’ joining their swelling ranks. But this idea is nothing new and some might wonder if the UK government is already pursuing a similar strategy. They have been stung once before by open discussion of such a plan. Using the data available at the time, TEFS (13th March 2020 ‘Government warning: "Squashing the sombrero" will damage your health’) and others estimated that, by allowing the virus to rip through the population, it would lead to the deaths of around 390,000 people. Even in the deadliest conflict in world history, World War II, the UK did not suffer such high attrition with 383,700 military personnel killed alongside 67,200 civilians. Yet it was clearly a consideration that the government must have been well aware of at the time. 

Letting the virus run amok. 

Back in March, news broke that the government was considering the option of letting the virus spread so as to achieve herd immunity. This effect was first recognised with the mass vaccination for smallpox where well over 80% of the population was set as the target. With data coming from China earlier this year, this was estimated to be between 60% and 70% of the population for the circulating coronavirus (Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, SARS-CoV-2). On Sky News (March 13th 2020 ‘Coronavirus: Millions of Britons will need to contract COVID-19 for 'herd immunity') Chief Scientific Advisor, Patrick Valance was quoted as saying "About 60% is the sort of figure you need to get herd immunity”. By way of comparison, to reach herd immunity for measles, at least 90-95% of the population needed to be vaccinated. For polio, this is lower at 80-85% of the population. In both cases the targets were achieved through organised mass vaccination of children. Not by allowing the disease to spread rapidly. 

The potentially lower target for SARS-COV-2 became more tantalising when the impact on younger people seems a lesser risk. This may still be in the minds of our political leaders. No10 advisor, Dominic Cummings was widely reported to have said at an event in February that “herd immunity, protect the economy, and if that means some pensioners die, too bad.” 

This rumour started in the Sunday Times on March 22nd as they sought to explain a swift U-turn in government policy at the time. It was steadfastly denied and then fully reported as a fiction. However, the idea was seeded in the minds of everyone. Cummings has not gone away and nether has the virus. The name Dominic Cummings is listed as a signatory on the ‘Great Barrington Declaration’, but it most likely a fake name and it is unlikely he actually signed it.

The inevitable outcry seemed to have caused the government to divert to a tactic of what Boris Johnson called “squashing the sombrero”. The delays in taking action were however critical and reverberate today (see TEFS 13th March 2020 ‘Government warning: ‘”Squashing the sombrero" will damage your health’). The dreadful effect on unprotected care homes and vulnerable older citizens has now taken its deadly toll. With the government setting out on a deliberate policy of spreading the virus around younger people, the idea of a ‘herd immunity’ aim without vaccination still comes to mind. 

What is happening now. 

Last week the Secretary of Education informed Parliament that “A small number of universities have seen a number of coronavirus cases—it is not uncommon in communities across the country”. This was in response to a question by the Shadow Education Secretary, Kate Green. 
See below and report in Hansard 29th September 2020 ‘Students’ Return to Universities’
This was astoundingly optimistic and, either he has no idea, or he is being imaginative in  defence of another hidden plan. 

Yet, as the days advance, it seems the ‘small number’ had grown fast. Williamson is portrayed as incompetent, and possibly stupid, by many observers. He is nether of these things. Instead he is obviously pursuing a policy of balancing economic factors against protecting the public. There are two critical things affecting universities. A key one is income from fees. This explains why students were duped into attending this term despite the obvious warnings that ‘face-to-face’ teaching would have to be abandoned early on. The alternative of advancing faster toward the goal of ‘herd immunity’ in the population would seem to be another outcome. 

The inexorable spread in our universities. 

It is strange that there appears to be no official record of the spread across university campuses despite the clear and present danger to vulnerable people in contact with students. This starts with staff and their families and will spread to the families of students when the return home. Neither the Office for Students nor Universities UK have much to say other than advice in containing the coronavirus ‘horse after it has bolted’. 

Some universities have either avoided or delayed announcements while others accepted their position and posted numbers. It has been down to the press and media to investigate alongside student unions. This has largely been through local papers and student papers pushing the universities in their areas. 

To fill the information gap, two academics, John Levin and Andrew Chitty from the University of Sussex, launched a very informative www site called ‘UniCovid UK’. Much of the mainstream media information is arising from them. They are collating inputs from several sources, including university www sites, local newspapers, student unions and papers, internal messages in universities and contributions from university staff. It seems a bit eclectic, but the coverage is extensive and across the whole of the UK. The first report was made on 25th September 2020 and it seems Gavin Williamson failed to spot its significance. While he was playing down the spread of coronavirus on 29th September, UniCovid UK was reporting 54 universities with cases (38 in England,1 in Northern Ireland,12 in Scotland and 3 in Wales). This was the “small number” he sought to reassure us about. 

How do the doubling of numbers of COVID-19 cases stack up? 

By the start of this week, there were 84 Universities with cases (64 in England, 1 in Northern Ireland, 13 in Scotland and 6 in Wales). All the universities, where there are reports, are listed and it is possible to add up the number of positive cases in each. By then, there were a total of 1,697 students (including some staff) reported as positive cases. These were distributed across the universities with 1,497 from the Russell Group (5 not declaring numbers), 19 from Pre-92 (12 not declaring numbers) and 111 Post-92 (27 not declaring numbers). 

The situation continued to worsen and today there are at least 8,942 positive cases reported. The distribution remains similar across the universities with 4,926 Russell group, 749 Pre-92 and 3,267 Post-92. Although this is not real-time reporting, it suggests that doubling is happening in around 3 days or so. Bearing in mind universities are being slow to report the cases, it seems the figures are a considerable underestimate. The impact on more students and the wider community must be substantially greater. 

Are disadvantaged students affected more? 

TEFS analysis of data gleaned from the UniCovid UK postings does not show any obvious pattern at this stage. The positive cases are higher in larger institutions where there are sizeable accommodation blocks and high concentrations of students. Some observers have described them as ‘inland’ cruise ships. This is not far from the reality for those locked down. With some universities supplying food parcels at high cost, it is likely that students with limited finances will be hardest hit (the Guardian today 'Like baby food': UK students' lockdown complaints grow’). Most emphasis has been placed students in accommodation blocks, but we must not forget the many others with less funding. Those unable to afford university halls, or private halls, are the ones elsewhere in the community housed by private landlords. They are an unknown quantity as far as COVID goes. These must not be forgotten. Many will also be housed at home and are travelling into a situation where an increasing number of their peers are potentially a danger to them and their vulnerable relatives. 

All of this adds to the increasing realisation that the mass migration of students into some urban areas may have fuelled the sudden increase in COVID-19 cases in many cities that coincided with the start of term and freshers week. This may not be the case, but local people are forgiven for thinking this. It is not helped by the reluctance of some universities to release the data on numbers of cases. One even claimed that Public Health England told them not to release data in case it confused the other data from the area. This was before they had to admit to a very high number that is still rising today. Student newspapers and Student Unions have been very active in uncovering the situation in their own institutions, sometimes resorting to their own student surveys. It will become obvious that any attempt at covering up was always doomed to fail and backfire. It is more important than ever that the NSS and other regular annual student surveys are pursued with even greater vigour at this time. 

Are students walking away?

The current situation is that many students are returning home and deciding to work remotely. Universities are slowly shifting to online teaching as the only option. Some students have already decided to withdraw from their studies. TEFS has heard of considerable numbers across some universities, however this cannot be easily verified, and we may have to wait for official HESA data. There may be some indication from the data released in December, but HESA is indicating that COVID-19 may cause delays. The possibility of students suspending their studies to next year is a very real one. There will be a financial penalty of 25% fees at this stage, but this may not seem much out of a three-year programme. With the demographics swinging to much higher student numbers next year, it seems things can only get more difficult (see TEFS 21st August 2020 ‘The perfect storm for Universities PART ONE: The demographic reality’). 

Whatever the strategy, the outcome of ‘herd immunity’ is getting nearer at the cost of many more lives. Students with few resources at home, or on campus, are bearing the brunt of disrupted studies (TEFS 28th August 2020 ‘Levelling up? No, the educational equality decline has just started’). Those with access to better facilities will no doubt thrive on the online ‘experience’. But one thing is certain, the gap between rich and poor will widen fast almost as fast as the virus is spreading. Maybe that is also the aim?

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University.

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