Update: Universities Minister tells students not to leave term-time address

Updated 3/11/20: Michelle Donelan MP, Minister of State for Universities has sent a letter to students, writing that “under national restrictions from 5 November, you should stay in your current home. This means you should not leave your term-time address to return to your parents’ or carer’s home until at least 2 December – and should continue to learn at university for the remainder of this term.”

This is in order to prevent the spread of COVID 19 – since “any movement around the country will risk the lives of our loved ones.”

Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor of the University, wrote: “I would like to express my deep appreciation to College staff for the work they have been doing over the past several months to ensure that your educational experience is the best that it can possibly be in these strange circumstances. I also thank the vast majority of students who are following our guidance, and embracing life at Oxford.”

Michelle Donelan also wrote to the heads of Higher Education Providers echoing a similar message that students should remain where they are. On the possibility of students being made to stay in their accommodation over Christmas, she wrote that “we are also continuing to work on finalising guidance to set out how students will be able to return home safely at the end of the period of national restriction.”

It is unclear if students will be able to return home should national restrictions continue beyond the end of term, as Michael Gove did not rule out the possibility of extending lockdown beyond 2nd December. Several colleges have already issued guidance, guaranteeing that their students will be able to stay over Christmas should they need to, while some have asked their students to inform them of their attention to return home for the lockdown period as soon as possible.

Updated 2/11/20: Oxford University has today issued advice for students in light of the announcement by Prime Minister Boris Johnson of a new national lockdown. It will remain open for teaching and research. 

Following a meeting of the Silver Group and the Conference of Colleges, the Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Education) emailed students to inform them of the latest updates. Residency requirements remain in place, and the University “encourage[s] you to stay in Oxford to make the most of your academic experience unless you have specific reasons for needing to leave.”

The email reads in full:

“I am writing to provide an update following the prime minister’s announcement about the introduction of national restrictions across England from this Thursday (5 November).

“While the introduction of new restrictions is not what any of us was hoping for, I would like to reassure you that the situation within the University remains stable, and we fully intend that University life will continue throughout this period.

“The Government guidance states that universities, like other educational institutions, are exempt from many of the new restrictions. We will continue to offer a mix of in-person and online teaching.  Planned in-person examinations will also continue to be administered in a COVID-secure setting, and libraries will remain open, as will our parks and gardens. We will have to close our museums to the public, and there will likely be additional restrictions to sport – details of which will follow in the near future.

“Oxford remains in Tier 2 restrictions until the fuller lockdown starts on Thursday. Government guidance for Tier 2 is that you must not move back and forward between Oxford and your permanent home during term time. From Thursday, the Government restriction is that you should not return home until the end of term. There are already more stringent rules for travel to other parts of the UK (in particular Wales and Scotland), so it is important that you follow all local guidance. 

“Residency requirements at Oxford remain in place until the end of term. Universities are exempt from many of the new restrictions and all the feedback shows that the wide range of measures we have put in place to support you continue to be effective. We therefore encourage you to stay in Oxford to make the most of your academic experience, unless you have specific reasons for needing to leave. If you have any concerns about staying, you should speak to your college in the first instance (or your department if you don’t have a college).”

A large worry for many students is what will happen at the end of term, with rumours that students will be forced to stay, or complete a two week isolation period circulating on various news sites. On this topic, Martin Williams wrote that “The Government has not yet published guidance about arrangements for the end of term, but we will provide advice as soon as we hear more.”

He continued:

“We are acutely aware that these are unsettling times for all of us, and that the additional restrictions add to the challenges. We believe that maintaining a mix of online and in-person teaching, and supporting students to keep engaging with their studies, will be beneficial for mental health and wellbeing. The University and colleges are strongly focused on supporting students’ wellbeing, and on providing COVID-safe activities where possible. We are also committed to strengthening our resources in this area, in particular through the new Mental Health Task Force announced in today’s Student News.

“While the Government’s announcement, and the statistics and projections that underlie it, are worrying, it is important to be clear that the level of infection within the University has not risen. Case numbers have been steady for the past two weeks and we have not seen any evidence of transmission in teaching or assessment settings. Nevertheless, it is essential that we all continue to take action to prevent the numbers from rising. In particular we ask you to continue to:

  • Follow the rules on testing and self-isolation
  • Maintain social distancing from people in other households
  • Maintain regular handwashing and wearing of face coverings indoors
  • Follow the behaviours in the student responsibility agreement

“While many students are asymptomatic, if you have COVID-19, you risk passing it on to vulnerable members of the community if you do not follow these rules.”

New developments were also announced regarding the Testing Service, regarding the future of asymptomatic testing, something already occurring at Cambridge University, but had been decided against for Oxford.

“I would like to give you an update about testing at the University. In addition to our testing service for those with symptoms, we are now involved in a trial of rapid Lateral Flow Test to identify those with an asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic infection, in partnership with the Department of Health and Public Health England. Initially this is being trialled in two colleges and one department. If it proves effective, we aim to extend it across the whole University. In the meantime, please continue to use the University testing service as usual – this has proved invaluable in helping us to control the spread within the University.”

Martin Williams concluded by thanking students:COVID-19 has, of course, changed university life in ways we would not have chosen. However, we have taken a wide range of steps to ensure you can continue with your Oxford experience this year, and I have been heartened by the positive response from our student community. You have all shown great resilience and adaptability, and I am pleased that we can continue to support your education and wider Oxford experience in the weeks ahead.

“More detailed information about the new restrictions will be published on the student pages of the University COVID-19 Response pages in the near future, so please continue to check back regularly.

“If you have any further enquiries, please contact your college or department in the first instance.”

The Prime Minister’s lockdown announcement came only days after the announcement that the city of Oxford would be moving into Tier Two restrictions. The new rules came into force at 00:01 on Saturday 31st October. These restrictions banned socialising with people from outside your household indoors, although many University activities, like face-to-face teaching, were exempt. Under the Tier Two restrictions, students are not permitted to travel home during term time except in special circumstances, and travelling between Tier One and Tier Two areas is also prohibited.

Oxford University announced on Monday that there had been 212 new positive cases in the week leading up to the 30th October, at a positivity rate of 29.2%. This takes the number of university cases since the opening of the Early Alert System to 708.  

The University and Colleges Union General Secretary, Jo Grady, has stated that in the event of a national lockdown, all university teaching should move online, highlighting that there are 35,000 cases on UK campuses.

“We may never know the full cost of the government’s decision to ignore its own scientists’ advice to move learning online in September, but we have now seen over 35,000 cases of Covid on campuses across the UK. Public health directors in Newcastle, Manchester and Liverpool have already moved teaching online at universities in response to rising cases of Covid. The government’s measures must follow suit, it cannot afford to undermine the country’s sacrifice, and risk the health and safety of staff and students, by allowing in-person teaching to continue on campuses.”   

All non-essential shops, pubs, and restaurants will close from Thursday at midnight, although nurseries, schools, and universities will remain open. Outbound international travel will be prohibited, except for work. Travel within the UK will also be discouraged, and overnight stays away from home will be allowed only for work. Manufacturing and construction will be permitted to continue. The lockdown – or ‘Tier four’ –  is expected to last at least until the 2nd December (Thursday 8th week), with the country then returning to the tier system. 

Increasing case numbers in other European countries, like Belgium, Germany, and France, have led to re-implemented lockdowns across the continent. Leaked SAGE documents revealed that coronavirus was spreading faster than in the government’s ‘worst-case’ scenario, which had estimated 85,000 deaths during winter.

The Prime Minister is said to have been shown modelling predictions that predict demand will outpace hospital capacity in all regions except London in four weeks. The South-West and North-West are forecast to be at full capacity potentially within a fortnight according to leaked cabinet documents. MPs will vote on the new restrictions on Wednesday, and they will come into effect at midnight on Thursday.   

Image Credit: Sara Price