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Mass testing on students could begin within weeks to allow them to go home for Christmas

·3-min read
CARDIFF, WALES - OCTOBER 12: A student self isolating at Talybont South halls of residence at Cardiff University looks from her window on October 12, 2020 in Cardiff, Wales. Students at the Cardiff University Talybont South halls were tested over the weekend for coronavirus as part of precautionary measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Seventy-five students and staff across the university have tested positive. (Photo by Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)
A student self isolating at Talybont South halls of residence at Cardiff University. (Getty)

The government is reportedly planning to introduce mass coronavirus testing for students so they can go home for Christmas without spreading the virus.

In a letter from universities minister Michelle Donelan to vice chancellors across England, she says testing is likely begin by the end of this month.

The letter, seen by the BBC, reportedly proposes a week of mass testing, beginning on November 30 and lasting until December 6.

The scheme will involve so-called "lateral flow tests" which allow subjects to get a quick result, despite critics saying the method provides a higher rate of “false positive” results.

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 06: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks to staff at a testing centre in De Montfort University, amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) on November 6, 2020 in Leicester, United Kingdom. (Photo by Molly Darlington - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Prime minister Boris Johnson visiting a testing centre. (Getty)
British Army Brigadier Joe Fossey, who is coordinating the mass coronavirus testing pilot in Liverpool, holds up the components of a lateral flow Covid-19 test as he speaks during a virtual press conference on the coronavirus pandemic in the UK inside 10 Downing Street in central London on November 9, 2020. (Photo by Tolga Akmen / POOL / AFP) (Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
British Army Brigadier Joe Fossey holds up the components of a lateral flow test. (Getty)

In her letter, Donelan claimed it “works extremely well” and would allow testing to “take place on a very regular basis”.

The letter says: "The tests we are deploying have a high specificity which means the risk of false positive test results is low.

"Although the test does not detect all positive cases, it works extremely well in finding cases with higher viral loads - which is those who are most infectious.

Read more: Schools fear some pupils may not return for rest of year if exams axed – Ofsted

"As the test is easy to administer and does not require a laboratory, testing can take place on a very regular basis," the letter to university leaders said.

But the University and College Union (UCU) says the scheme could present huge logistical challenges and risk leaving students "in limbo".

The UCU has called on the government to move all non-essential in-person teaching online now, to lower the risk of transmission on campuses during lockdown and to help thousands of students to return home safely.

Watch: Prime minister Boris Johnson explains new lockdown rules

Jo Grady, general secretary of the UCU, said: "We hope the Government is able to properly oversee mass testing of students at the end of term, but there are huge hurdles to overcome to manage this process properly and not leave staff and students stuck in limbo.

"Some of our concerns include whether all universities will be able to take part, how the tests will be administered, who will cover the costs, what the plan is for students who commute to campus daily from their family home, and how students who aren't able to be tested will travel home safely."

Grady added: "[The government] must also support students to learn remotely next term and work with universities to help release any students who wish to remain at home from their accommodation contracts.

"We cannot risk another mass outbreak due to further government incompetence."

On Monday, the prime minister said guidance for university students wishing to return home for Christmas will be issued "very shortly" to ensure young people do not infect elderly family members.

Guidance from the Department for Education (DfE) last week also told university students not to leave their term-time address to return home between November 5 and December 2.

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