The Health Secretary has said he would not rule out asking students to stay at their university accommodation over the Christmas break to stop the spread of coronavirus.
Asked in an interview with Times Radio whether he would consider the measure, Matt Hancock said he does not want to encourage university students not to travel home – but he would not rule it out.
“We have said that students should stay at university until Christmas,” he explained.
“We don’t rule out the suggestion you just made but I don’t want to have to say that. It is some time off.
“I very much hope that we won’t have to say that, but as I say I don’t rule it out.”
He added: “The important thing is in the short-term, students once they’ve gone to university should stay at university so as not to spread the disease.”
Downing Street also did not rule out such a move in the event of outbreaks.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “What is important in the event there is a specific outbreak on a campus is that steps are taken to ensure that the virus is not spread more widely.”
Scotland’s national clinical director Professor Jason Leitch warned he was “very concerned” after it emerged that coronavirus clusters had been detected at the University of Glasgow, while students had tested positive in a number of other student cities too.
In Glasgow, 124 students have tested positive and more than 600 are self-isolating across residences, while around 500 Abertay University students were asked to self-isolate in student accommodation in Dundee following three positive test results.
At the University of Aberdeen, 72 residents in Wavell House were also asked to self-isolate after students tested positive.
In England, the University of Liverpool confirmed there were already 87 confirmed cases of Covid-19 among students and staff on campus in the week before the autumn term began, while Manchester Metropolitan University said it was ‘managing a handful of confirmed cases’ in flats at the Birley campus in Hulme last week.
Speaking on BBC Breakfast, Prof Leitch said: “I am concerned, very concerned, about higher and further education, I always have been.
“I was concerned when it came back and I’m concerned now.
“Predictably, we have cases. Every country in the world that has brought universities back has got cases.
“We need to be very, very careful. Even though most of those cases will not get serious illness, some of them will and some of them will potentially spread it to the community.”
A spokesman for the University of Glasgow said: “We are aware of two significant clusters of positive cases of Covid-19 in our Murano Street and Cairncross residences, which we believe were largely due to social activity around September 12-14, the start of freshers’ week.
“We are working closely with NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde’s public health team to manage these.”
The University and College Union said the UK government must listen to the science, look at the experiences from other countries and tell universities to make online learning their default position immediately.
The union’s general secretary Jo Grady said: “Unless the government acts now, thousands more students will move on to campus this weekend.
“It is completely irresponsible to let students go back to university when outbreaks have already started.”