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Don’t ignore the dashboard warnings and don’t blame the students

A sharp rise in students testing positive for Coronavirus (
SARS-CoV-2) has coincided with a return to tighter lockdown measures announced yesterday. While some media outlets looked toward the role of students and universities (Daily Mail and Guardian yesterday), the WHO’s Director-General held a media briefing and denounced calls for a ‘herd immunity’ approach with “Never in the history of public health has herd immunity been used as a strategy for responding to an outbreak, let alone a pandemic. It is scientifically and ethically problematic”. The UK is becoming a dangerous place for the least advantaged and most vulnerable. The government, projected directly from No10, ignored the advice of its own scientists three weeks ago and deliberately led us to this pivotal point in time. Whatever the motivation, they are heading for a ‘herd immunity’ resolution and are prepared to sacrifice people to achieve this. The most chilling passage in the ignored SAGE advice on the 21st September 2020 was the “HE workforce more than the student body” were at greater risk of “Direct impact on COVID deaths and severe disease”. 

Yesterday brought increased measures in combatting COVID-19 across England. No doubt similar measures will emerge in the rest of the UK this week. Boris Johnsons unfortunate simile for the rising cases of COVID-19, “These figures are flashing at us like dashboard warnings in a passenger jet” will no doubt come back to haunt him by Christmas. It seems the warning lights were flashing as long ago as the 21st September 2020. As he was creating this soundbite, to explain how some cities will see more severe lockdowns than others, a report from the SAGE committee was sneaked out of the back door (see report of the latest SAGE meeting on COVID-19 21st September 2020). It had recommended urgent measures more stringent than those announced yesterday. These included a move to online teaching in universities amongst the five main measures. It is clear now that the government is flying out of No10 and decided to fly in the opposite direction with all of the warning lights flashing in the cockpit. 

SAGE advice. 

The details in the SAGE advice on the impact of various measures make for interesting reading. The highest impact would be effected by everyone staying at home as we saw in March. On Higher Education it had this to say. 

“Outbreaks are very likely in universities, given their size and the degree of close contact typical through shared living arrangements and while socialising and during lectures and practicals. Universities associated with outbreaks of other diseases (e.g. mumps and meningitis) and clear evidence from the US of transmission of COVID in this setting. Closing universities associated with a ~0.3 (0.2-0.5) reduction in the R number. Mitigations short of closure should include strong steer towards online learning for all but essential practical activities”

On the “Direct impact on COVID deaths and severe disease” it was confirmed that the “Risk within the HE workforce more than the student body”

The government’s response was to press on with opening universities and it seems that sacrificing vulnerable university staff, and those in their families, was a price they were prepared to pay. 

Government plays down the situation. 

Also yesterday, the Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan stood up in parliament and told is there were about 9,000 cases of COVID-19 amongst students in 68 Universities.  

TEFS reported figures gleaned from the UniCovid UK www site last week as at least 8,942 positive cases. These were added up from the list of universities cited on their site. It was noted that “Bearing in mind universities are being slow to report the cases, it seems the figures are a considerable underestimate”. This was indeed the case. 

Yet on Thursday last week, the Education Secretary said in 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. 

Figures reflecting the actual situation are now apparent and are causing some alarm. 

Yesterday, UniCovid UK released all of its data in a table to reveal the total number of confirmed cases across the UK to be 13,008 (12,833 students and 175 staff). This closely matched the University College Union (UCU) data in their Covid-19 case dashboard that reported a significant rise in cases since last week and now sits at a total of 14,915 in our Universities. 

Donelan, indicated that she would be working with the Office for Students to produce accurate figures this week. We wait to see what these amount to. But it is very hard to believe the Department of Education, alongside Universities UK and the Office for Students, did not plan to monitor the situation from the outset. They probably did and sought to cover up the bad news about the inevitable impact of moving nearly a million students around the UK in the middle of a pandemic. 

Blaming the students. 

As sure as night follows day, the blame game started as the number of cases escalated. While the Guardian simply reported the figures with ‘Fears grow student Covid infections will spread into local areas in England and Wales’ the usual suspects in the media sought to make comparisons with the local infections rates. The Daily Mail yesterday led with, ‘Covid-19 infection rates at universities in Sheffield, Manchester and Birmingham are up to SEVEN TIMES higher than in the cities around them, data shows’. This deliberately fuels the idea that students and universities are to blame. The data shows that students definitely added to a crisis in many areas. But it would be wrong to blame them for going along with government policy to open the universities to face-to face teaching. The blame for this lies at No10. 

Who will the students blame? 

While those with the least bear the brunt, and lose their jobs and businesses, they look to students and their behaviours for someone to blame. But they will also realise that the government and No10 had set up the situation. University staff will not forgive their employers or the government when the deaths mount. Then, worse will come when students return home in the midst of further deaths in their own families. They will never accept that it was a risk worth taking and will feel they were badly duped. There may be trouble ahead................ no music and no dance.

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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