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Labour Has Criticised Gavin Williamson For His "Silence" On The University Covid Crisis

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson (Credit: PA)

4 min read

Gavin Williamson must come to the Commons next week to explain what the government is doing to tackle the Covid university crisis, Labour says.

Thousands of students have been forced into lockdown across the country as universities battle to contain outbreaks of the virus, with some unable to leave even to exercise or shop for food.

There are fears many will also be prevented from spending Christmas at home with their families if government measures imposed so far fail to bring cases back under control.

Shadow culture secretary Jo Stevens said the education secretary must appear in parliament on Monday to set out "exactly what he is doing" to help universities put proper testing systems in place for students and staff.

She told Sky's Sophy Ridge: "We have to put safety and public health first obviously, but Labour has said we think students should be allowed home for Christmas, and to enable them to do that we need an effective test trace and isolate system."

More than 6,000 new coronavirus cases were recorded across the country on Saturday, with 34 new deaths bringing the UK total to nearly 42,000.

About 3,000 students were thought to be in lockdown this week, with some prevented from leaving campus accommodation by security guards and police.

One student at Manchester Metropolitan Univeristy told the BBC: "We have had no warning, support or advice from the university about how we get food and instead have been left completely in the dark and practically locked up against our will."

Ms Stevens said parents and students were facing "incredible levels of anxiety" and that so far there had been "silence" from Mr Williamson.

"[He] should be talking to universities to make sure they can all [test students and staff] and put support in place fo them to do that," she said.

"We need to see him come to the House of Commons tomorrow to tell us exactly what he's doing to help universities and to help students through this."

The Labour frontbencher added: "It's supposed to be a great time in your life. You go off to university, you're going to a new city to live, you're making new friends. [Students] are missing out on all of that experience.

"And if we can get the test and trace and isolate running effectively, that will allow students to come home at Christmas to their families, which at the moment Matt Hancock refuses to say can happen."

Shadow justice secretary David Lammy said the government's test and trace system was "pathetic" and that students had been "done over".

"They've been done over on their A-levels, they've been done over on freshers' week, the government's now threatening to lock them up at university and very worrying for them, when they graduate we may be looking at long-term youth unemployment," he told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show.

Asked if they should have their tuition fees refunded, he added: "It's clear there are lots of universities are struggling financially...there's a balance to be struck."

Shadow education secretary Kate Green has written to Mr Williamson to ask him to consider a 'pause in migration' for students who have not yet travelled to univeristy campuses.

“It is unthinkable that students will be locked in their rooms and unable to return home to spend Christmas with their families," she said.

"The government must promise that this will not happen, and work with universities to enable every student to access tests so that they can travel home safely.

“The government should also consider a delay to the start of term or a pause in migration for universities where term has not yet begun to allow improvements in testing capacity and remote learning provision."

The Department for Education said it was "working closely" with universtiies, while culture secretary Oliver Dowden said if everyone followed government guidance it "should be possible" for students to go home for Christmas.  

A spokesperson for Universities UK, which represents institutions across the country, said: “The health and wellbeing of students, staff and local communities remains the first priority for universities. 

“Universities will continue to follow government guidance, as they have done throughout the pandemic, as well as drawing on the significant expertise that already exists in universities. The sector has been working hard to put in place multiple safety and health measures – on campus and at provided accommodation – so they can provide some in-person teaching, support and social activities in a safe and engaging way."

The organisation said any decision to move teaching online would "be taken at an institutional level in conjunction with public health authorities".

“Universities are also working very closely in partnership with their local authorities, public health bodies and others to ensure that effective and rapid outbreak response plans are in place and clearly understood," they added.

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