University students should be offered a coronavirus test after returning from the Christmas break, and follow a staggered return to campus, the government has said.
On the other side of the holidays, coronavirus tests should be available on return to university to identity and isolate asymptomatic students, according to guidance published by rhe Department for Education (DfE) on Wednesday.
The DfE said all institutions will be offered testing facilities to give students two lateral flow tests - which turn results around within the hour - three days apart.
Universities should also stagger the return of students over five weeks to reduce the spread of coronavirus, the new guidance says.
Medical students, those on placements or practice courses that require in-person teaching should return from 4 to 18 January in line with planned start dates.
Meanwhile, remaining courses should be offered online teaching from the start of term so they can carry on studying from home, and start to return gradually over a two week period from 25 January, according to the guidance.
Universities minister, Michelle Donelan, said: “The health and wellbeing of students, staff and local communities is always our primary concern and this plan will enable a safer return for all students. But we must do this in a way which minimises the risk of transmission.
“I know students have had to make sacrifices this year and have faced a number of challenges, but this staggered return will help to protect students, staff and communities.”
Jo Grady from the University and College Union welcomed the move. “After months of campaigning by UCU, the government has finally seen sense and said that online learning should be the default position until at least 8 February,” she said.
Under plans to get students home for Christmas, universities have been told to move all learning online by 9 December at the very latest, so students can carry on with their studies after going home during the suggested travel window.
All students should be back at university by 7 February after the staggered return in the new year, the government said.
Universities UK, which respresents around 140 institutions, said: “We welcome the government’s commitment to continued asymptomatic testing for university students in the new year, following the successful roll-out of pilots across the country this term."
The organisation added in a statement: “Universities now need further clarity from the government on how they will be supported to deliver testing in the new year, given the significant resource requirements associated with the pilots so far.”
Earlier this week, Labour called for a staggered return to university following the Christmas holidays, with the shadow universities minister urging the goverment to “urgently” address the January return to avoid “spikes in infection rates of the kind seen in September”.