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 is proposed that overlaps with the end of the lockdown – 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.
This week at the start of December could then become the “window” for students to leave university for the Christmas holidays.
But those who test positive will have to take another test and, if found to be infectious, will have to self isolate.
There are 1.2 million students expected to move at Christmas from a university to a home in another part of the country.
- The pilot tests for getting students home at Christmas
- Face-to-face university teaching to stop two weeks before end of term
- Will it be ‘go home and stay home’ for students after Christmas
This has raised concerns among the Sage scientific advisers that this migration could spread the coronavirus.
So plans are being made for rapid, mass testing, using so-called “lateral flow tests”.
These are nose and throat swab tests, which 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.
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 – so when students have been given the all-clear they could be expected to soon leave their term-time address and go home, in a “test and release” process.
This could mean that by about 9 December, many students will have left for Christmas – but not those who have positive tests.
They will have to remain and isolate.
There are also believed to have been discussions about how the departure of students can be made safe – such as co-ordinating staggered times 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 the guidance for 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.