Coronavirus outbreaks at UK universities climb above 50

3 October 2020, 12:45 | Updated: 3 October 2020, 12:59

Dozens of universities have had Covid-19 outbreaks over the past fortnight
Dozens of universities have had Covid-19 outbreaks over the past fortnight. Picture: PA

By Ewan Somerville

More than 50 British universities have been hit with coronavirus outbreaks and 2,500 cases recorded as hundreds of thousands of students return to campus.

A surge in coronavirus cases in recent weeks has led to thousands of students having to self-isolate in their halls, including Manchester Metropolitan and Glasgow University.

Northumbria University confirmed late on Friday afternoon that 770 students have tested positive for Covid-19 and they are all now self-isolating.

There have been more than 200 cases at the University of Sheffield and 177 University of Liverpool staff and students have tested positive and Manchester University has had 382 cases since mid-September. 

Around 56 universities across the UK have had at least one confirmed case of Covid-19, with staff also infected. Union leaders said as many as 70 institutions were now affected.

The highest number of cases among students and staff appears to be in northern cities in England as well as Scottish universities – which reopened first – but there have been cases at institutions across the UK.

There have been 47 cases among students at Oxford Brookes university, at Sussex University one member of staff and 10 students are self-isolating after testing positive for Covid-19, while Exeter University has accounted for half of the active cases in Devon.

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, vice president for higher education at the National Union of Students, called for "drastic action now" to stem the rising tide of infections.

“It is deeply irresponsible to continue with business as usual and the government and universities must be honest with students about what the pandemic can mean for their university experience.”

She added: “Fully accessible online education must become a reality immediately and we need digital investment at a national scale to make this happen.”

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), said: “It is an outrage that ministers and universities spent the summer talking up a student experience that the science and staff said was never likely.”

A spokeswoman for Universities UK, which represents institutions, said: “All universities are working in partnership with their local authorities and public health bodies to adapt to the changing local circumstances, to effectively implement outbreak response plans to protect their communities and to continue to ensure measures are in place to reduce risks.

“Where students are self-isolating, universities are taking care of both their physical and emotional wellbeing including access to testing and health care, mental health support, continuing learning online, safe social interaction, food deliveries, laundry, and financial support.”

Official guidance states universities should keep students on campus in local outbreaks to avoid spreading the virus elsewhere. Ministers have asked institutions to ensure those self-isolating “have all the support they need”, a Government spokesperson said. 

Sage, the Government’s scientific advisory group, warned last month that “significant outbreaks” at institutions were “highly likely”.