Stop blaming students – meet public health and testing needs!

As at 24 September over 1,000 university students across Scotland were in self-isolation after hundreds tested positive for Covid in the days before.  In response to this escalation, the University authorities in Scotland issued draconian threats of disciplinary action, blaming students, rather than trying to resolve the crisis.  Mike Picken reports.

This was entirely predictable, but the response of governments and universities has been lamentable and condemned by trade unions and student unions alike.  What has happened in Scotland is likely to be repeated in England over the next two weeks and has the potential for swamping the currently failing UK government’s privatised testing system risking the health of the general population.

On 23 September Scotland recorded the highest confirmed daily Covid numbers since the pandemic began, with nearly 500 new cases and a positivity rate of nearly 8% of those tested.  Positive Covid tests of university students constituted the major growth factor with a cluster of over 100 in Glasgow alone. 

Two halls of residence at the University of Glasgow reported large outbreaks and are now virtually in lockdown.  The University has confirmed that transmission is believed to have occurred at the start of term (‘Freshers’ Week) on 12 September, but due to the incubation period of Covid has now massively spiked.  Outbreaks were also confirmed in university halls in Dundee, Aberdeen. St Andrews and Edinburgh.

The response to the crisis from the Scottish university authorities and government was appalling.  Rather than find ways of supporting students and encouraging them to stay safe, they blamed students instead!  The University Principals issued a joint statement, endorsed by the SNP Scottish government, threatening draconian disciplinary action with a Yellow Card/Red Card system and the threat of prompt expulsion.  Public health experts argued instead for wider use of testing facilities and stated that playing the blame game was ‘completely unhelpful’. 

New public health measures from the Scottish government come into force over the weekend of 26/27 September, but university authorities have demanded that all students go further and remain completely isolated, not visiting pubs or restaurants.  This is totally unworkable – the vast majority of students in Scotland do not live in city halls of residence where the outbreaks have mainly occurred.  Students have rightly pointed out that they are part of the wider community and should not be singled out as a group in this way.  The situation in halls of residences need to be handled as local outbreaks with universities working with public health teams to help keep residents safe.

Disciplinary threat condemned

The threat of severe disciplinary action against students has been widely condemned and criticised.

University College Union (UCU) Scotland’s Mary Senior issued a statement calling for the threats to be withdrawn and stated:  “It is astounding that the Scottish Government & principals are blaming students for Covid outbreaks on university campuses. This is an incredibly contagious virus and students were encouraged to return”

National Union of Students (NUS) Scotland president Matt Crilly responded angrily to the authorities: “Tonight’s announcement by Universities Scotland and endorsed by Scottish Government unfairly blames students for spread of coronavirus…the rules show a complete disregard for students’ mental health and wellbeing. We need better”

Public health experts Professor Devi Sridhar and Professor Linda Bauld opposed the blaming of students and called for more systematic testing facilities for students in halls and residences instead.

Scottish universities early start

Due to the distinctive Scottish education system, university terms start early – some two weeks or so before most of those in the rest of the UK.  What has now occurred in Scotland is likely to continue across the UK in the next fortnight, on a much larger scale. 

The danger for the majority of the population is that a large spike of Covid cases in University residences could cause the complete collapse of the already fragile and failing UK Government privatised ‘Test and Trace’ system run by the government’s favourite contractors such as the notoriously incompetent Deloittes and Serco

While universities claimed to be well prepared, it was inevitable that packing thousands of young people many miles from home in large halls, many privately run and densely packed, was bound to result in widespread transmission through social contact.  Universities have reduced the risk of virus spread through education activities such as classes and lectures, which have largely been replaced by online learning.  However insufficient attention has been played to both the hygiene and behavioural factors involved in student halls of residence. 

Scottish universities include a wide range of students, including those at local campuses in smaller towns, mature students (fees are not a deterrent), nursing and other health students spending half their study time in the NHS, and a larger proportion of students living at home and studying HE courses at local colleges.  Treating students as a homogenous group in a pandemic displays a complete lack of understanding of the public health measures needed.

The situation could be worse in England where the boarding school and privatised model of university education is more widespread.  Reports are already coming in of campus outbreaks in Liiverpool, Manchester and Oxford.  Wealthy universities with largely middle class student bodies have however put in their own testing arrangements rather than rely on the failing UK testing system.  For example, Cambridge University’s 15,000 students (half of whom went to private schools that are also testing their students regularly) will be offered testing on arrival in October, processed through the University’s significant access to testing labs.  Nottingham University has done similarly.

 However many universities, particularly those post-92 universities with a higher proportion of working class students, are cash-strapped and would struggle to afford such facilities without government funding.  The Scottish government has implemented a series of walk-in centres in areas with university halls and mobile testing centres have been deployed.  But this has been too little, too late, and unless urgent action is taken by the UK Tory government (which seems very unlikely) is not going to be replicated in England.

Questions need to be raised about how universities have been allowed to resume without state organised testing and support systems to protect both them and the wider public from the inevitable dangers of mass transmission of the virus, particularly in social settings such as halls of residence.

Privatised government testing system ‘failing’

Governments and university authorities are trying  to blame the crisis on individual students ‘misbehaving’, but the reality of the pandemic is that any return to a functioning education system requires a successful government-run Covid ‘Test and Trace’ system – the complete opposite of what we actually have.  The Tory UK Government was recently criticised publicly by the former Chief Scientific Advisor Sir David King for their awarding of contracts to run the private ‘Test and Trace’ system to two profit making companies without any relevant experience (Deloittes and Serco). 

In fact it’s worse than that, far worse!  The companies running Test and Trace have actually been fined previously for breaching their government and other contractual responsibilities. Deloittes main line of business is accounting and audit, in which capacity they signed off the accounts of outsourcing giant Carillion prior to its collapse.  Deloittes role in the Carillion collapse was actually strongly criticised by a Select Committee of the House of Commons but that didn’t stop the Tories bringing them into run Test and Trace without any relevant experience of public health.  Serco is run by a grandee with strong links to the Tory party (including the establishment’s Eton/Oxford connections that currently dominate the government).  Serco was previously fined for its failure on government contracts for housing asylum seekers and electronic tagging of offenders, for which Deloittes as Serco’s auditor was also criticised and fined. 

Test and Trace is overseen by a Tory politician, Baroness Harding, a businessperson with no background in healthcare, but who is married to a Tory MP and was a fellow student at Oxford with the Prime Minister.  Like the head of the UK Vaccine Taskforce, who is also married to a Tory MP [1], she owes her important position in the Covid crisis entirely down to cronyism in the Tory party and establishment. 

Labour should call out this entire scandal of privatisation and cronyism in the running of the Covid crisis, but its ‘new leadership’ appears to be far too timid to do so.

The crisis of testing is going to run out of control in the next few weeks and it is up to the labour movement to challenge it, not by blaming students and young people, but by challenging the Tories and demanding as a priority a publicly owned and state-run Covid testing system to support the safe operation of the education system.  Governments and university authorities need to listen to student and trade unions warnings about the dangers and respond with a public health focus, not blame and the threat of expulsion.

25 September 2020


[1] Kate Bingham’s Wikipedia page has been deleted recently, but it’s still possible to work out that she is also known as ‘The Honourable Catherine Norman’ and is married to Tory MP Jesse Norman who studied at Eton and Oxford with Boris Johnson.  Dido Harding is married to Tory MP John Penrose.  The longstanding Tory practice of nepotism in awarding ‘jobs for the boys’ has undergone some minor changes in relation to gender in recent years but is very much alive and well.

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