Fears of 'isolation fatigue' if students quarantine before and after Christmas

Vice-chancellor of York calls for ‘hard thinking’ on government support for self-isolating young people

Glasgow students self-isolating at their halls in September.
Glasgow students self-isolating at their halls in September. In Scotland students have been asked to travel home for Christmas only if they have had two negative Covid tests. Photograph: Iain Masterton/Alamy

Students are at risk of “self-isolation fatigue” after Christmas as they face spending time quarantining both before and after their break, a university vice-chancellor has said.

The warning came as universities that have applied for rapid-testing kits to mass-test students - as part of a government plan to allow a six-day “travel window” for students in England - wait to hear what they will be given.

University heads have broadly welcomed the testing plans. They have been identifying test sites and making preparations, such as, at the University of York, a booking system where students could be collected by a family or “bubble” member.

Charlie Jeffery, vice-chancellor of York, said the mass testing could also be used in the future, when students were likely to be among the lowest priority for a Covid-19 vaccine.

The university was well placed in terms of Covid-19 tracing, he said, but “I do worry a bit about self-isolation fatigue”. He added: “The whole thing rests on the assumption that people will self-isolate, and through that manage the risk of onward transmission. We have had student cases and have had isolation for those who are positive or those in their households.

“But if someone comes back next year and has to do it all over again, after already having two weeks of self-isolation, it may be challenging. We need to think very hard about government support for self-isolation for students, who are by definition a low-income group.”

The challenges of negotiating the first Covid-era Christmas came as the government separately announced plans for major changes to the university admissions system, in which students in England could only receive offers of places once they had their final A-level grades.

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said he would consider moving to a post-qualifications admissions system in England where applicants received university places based on their actual exam results, to “remove the unfairness” that some groups faced because of to inaccurate predicted grades. The consultation announcement came after vice-chancellors and the admissions service, Ucas, outlined proposals to allow university places to be offered after A-level results day.

In Scotland, meanwhile, where students were to be asked to travel home for Christmas only if they had returned two negative Covid tests, the principal of Glasgow University welcomed the less prescriptive plans from the Scottish government, whereby individual institutions were being left to stagger departure dates.

Anton Muscatelli said: “The logistics are complex, and we don’t know yet how many will want to be tested, but it is a potentially large population. I expect a higher percentage in Glasgow, because there are not so many commuting students, so we have to anticipate we could have tens of thousands taking the tests.”

He said the university was looking at three or four locations on campus for student testing stations, as well as hiring 60 to 70 temporary staff who would need to be trained, “and of course we need enough test kits from the UK government.

“The other complexity for the country is transport availability, although I can imagine that will be more of a difficulty for everyone in England travelling between fixed dates,” he said.

In Wales, the vice-chancellor of Cardiff University, Colin Riordan, said the two biggest issues would be logistics and communicating with students. “It’s quite a big thing to test all of your students who may be intending to return home. We have about 28,000 students in Cardiff, and I would imagine that more than half would be thinking about going home,” he said.

The university had an advantage in that it had been carrying out its own screening service for weeks and had done a mass testing of around 1,200 students in one week.

“If people move smartly now to start organising this I don’t see why it should not be deliverable,” he said. “We were under a lot of pressure in the summer to get our screening service up and running, so you obviously still need to encourage people to have that community spirit, but also point out that it’s for their own piece of mind.”