The current situation on university campuses is deeply worrying as outbreaks of coronavirus have left thousands of students trapped in halls of residence.
Before students returned to university, Labour repeatedly told Ministers that they needed to get a grip on test and trace and explore a programme of mass testing at universities to prevent outbreaks of coronavirus on campus. But they completely failed to do so.
It was entirely predictable that as universities reopened, children went back to school, and workers returned to offices that demand on testing would increase. SAGE specifically warned the government weeks ago that asymptomatic carriers of coronavirus increased the risk of outbreaks on campus. And yet the government has not increased coronavirus testing capacity since June, while the track and trace system remains a mess.
Many students are now under strict quarantine while away from their family, friends, and familiar surroundings. There have even been reports from some universities that students were being detained in their halls of residence, with doors being patrolled by campus security. This is a hugely concerning state of affairs.
As well as the risk to physical health that the spread of coronavirus brings, being stuck in halls of residence with a group of strangers could present huge challenges for the mental health of students.
We know that recovery rates are much higher when mental health problems are caught early, so the government must be proactive in identifying mental health problems and offering immediate support to these students.
University staff, who have also been put at risk, worked hard over the summer to prepare Covid-secure environments but those well-laid plans now lie in tatters due to government’s failure on test, track and trace.
Staff are now deeply concerned that the return of more face to face teaching will make the spread of the virus worse, and they have repeatedly called for a move to online learning. For this to be possible, students need to be able to learn remotely and the government must support universities to bring this about.
No-one blames the government for the existence of coronavirus but, time and time again, Minister’s response to the pandemic has been inadequate.
‘Fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ is an old proverb for students revising for exams but it equally applies to government. Ministers didn’t prepare for universities reopening and, as a result, they have badly failed staff, students, and their families.