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UK Universities Are Launching Their Own Coronavirus Testing Schemes As Test And Trace Descends Into A "Shambles"

A number of UK universities have established their own testing programmes

4 min read

A raft of UK universities have established their own Covid-19 testing schemes amid fears the return of students could lead to a spike in infections.

The Universities of Cambridge, Nottingham, Leicester and Cardiff are among those preparing to offer testing to staff and students in a bid to prevent a surge in coronavirus cases when they reopen next month.

It comes after a recent report published by the government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) warned the return of students posed a "critical risk" which could "amplify local and national transmission".

The schemes, which are being funded from university budgets, include a mixture of in-house testing and partnerships with commercial providers which offer rapid saliva-based tests.

Last week, the University of Cambridge announced around 16,000 people living in college-owned accommodation would be offered access to testing, but said they lacked the capacity to extend the scheme to other students. 

Meanwhile, Nottingham University announced on Tuesday it was launching its own in-house system which would offer repeat testing to asymptomatic students who may have come into contact with an infected person. 

Speaking to PoliticsHome, Alex Favier, director of Global and Political Affairs at the university, said they had decided to launch the scheme despite a lack of engagement from ministers. 

"We are lucky that we are able to do this, and we are also conscious that as part of our civic role, we want to be able to expand this to other local universities," he said. 

"It would be great to have the national government working with us on this, obviously, but we've tried flagging this multiple times, to many different parts of government – but it’s almost impossible to know who is actually responsible for coordinating this.

"We don't really know what more we can do in this regard, and we have been lucky to have had excellent support from local healthcare partners like Sherwood Forest Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and colleagues from local public health. 

"We’ve made the decision to proceed because we've got to do what is right for our institution, for our students, for our staff and for our local area, and that is why we are trying to get this in place now."

Ministers have already come under fire over the lack of testing capacity for universities, with academics' union UCU warning that the return of up to a million students could trigger a "silent avalanche of infections".

But Labour's shadow universities minister Emma Hardy said the situation risked creating a testing "lottery" for students. 

"The government's shambles of a testing programme has left universities with no choice but to organise their own," she told PoliticsHome.

"However, this is no replacement for a comprehensive service and creates a lottery for students depending on whether their institution possesses the finances and the facilities.

"The government have had six months to prepare for university reopenings. They have failed universities, their staff and students and the communities they live in."

Meanwhile, Mr Favier said he was "worried" about the potential impact on university communities which were unable to access extra testing.

He said: "I'm worried about it. But I think parts of the Government are also worried about it. SAGE is clearly worried about it. It is written in the report they published on exactly this issue, and we think that our model is actually consistent with the concerns and recommendations they make. 

"The problem is you can't pursue mass asymptomatic testing, even just for universities, using the finite resources and scientific model currently used by Pillar Two – which has to focus on symptomatic cases."

And vice-chancellors' group Universities UK said while universities had spent "many months of hard work" to ensure campuses were safe to return to, there was still a urgent need for more accessible testing facilities.

"Universities are currently working 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," a spokesperson said.

"This includes ensuring that students or staff showing symptoms of Covid-19 have access to local testing and are supported to self-isolate.

"Universities UK is continuing to urgently raise with government the need for increased capacity in the national testing regime and also to ensure testing centres are accessible for university populations."

The Department for Education has been approached for comment.

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