Concerns as Cambridge University term begins amid rise in Covid-19 infections
Term officially begins this week for the University of Cambridge against a backdrop of a second wave of Covid-19.
So far Cambridge and the wider area has had relatively low rates of the virus compared with other parts of the country.
But there is concern that the virus will spread more widely now that thousands of students have arrived in the city to attend the University of Cambridge, where the term starts on Thursday (October 8), and Anglia Ruskin, where the term started last month.
Cases are already climbing in the city and surrounding area, although it is not clear if that is in any way linked to returning students, and it comes amid rising cases nationally.
Provisional figures from Public Health England show the city recorded 21 cases in the week ending September 25, rising to 43 in the week ending October 2. Across the county, the weekly rise has been even steeper. Cambridgeshire as a whole recorded 89 cases in the week ending September 25, rising to 236 the following week, with increases in the number of new cases recorded in every district of the county.
The county and city councils say they have been working closely with the universities to prepare for the new term. Both universities have pledged to work with the authorities to help protect staff, students and the wider community, and both have implemented measures to reduce the risk of infection.
The University of Cambridge’s pro-vice-chancellor for enterprise and business relations, professor Andy Neely, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service he is excited to see students back and wants to reassure residents steps are being taken to mitigate the risks.
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Around 20,000 students will be attending the University of Cambridge this year. Around three quarters of those will be in university accommodation in one of the 31 colleges, and for those students the university is offering weekly testing, even if they are not displaying symptoms.
Prof Neely said the system was made possible through an “innovation” of a household testing regime. The students are organised into household groups based on their living arrangements, each person will then use their own swabs, but they will then pool those swabs and send them off to be processed as one test. If the household tests positive, then individuals can be tested further if needs be. This reduces the number of weekly tests needed to around 2,000.
There will be no such asymptomatic testing for the roughly 5,000 students in private accommodation, but the university is also providing testing for those with symptoms.
Residents in Cambridge and the wider area have struggled to get tests locally in recent weeks, and people have claimed to have been told to travel all over the country to receive one, including a case last month where someone claimed they were told to travel as far as Aberdeen.
But Prof Neely said the university’s testing regime will not take resources away from the system used by residents as part of the national test and trace programme.
The university is providing swabs to conduct the tests, but they will still need to be processed in laboratories which are also being used for the national test and trace system.
“Any testing that we are doing is subject to there being sufficient national capacity. So we are not taking away from the national capacity and using it for the students, as long as there is sufficient national capacity then we can do our pooled testing,” Prof Neely said, adding “there is no sort of preferential treatment for the university students to get testing over other people in the city”.
In addition to the additional testing, the university said it also has an awareness campaign and measures around hand hygiene, masks and reduced capacity for buildings.
The university will take a “blended approach to teaching, some face-to-face and some online,” Prof Neely said. Lectures will be conducted online, but the university hopes to continue with face-to-face teaching for the smaller group learning that it has always practised.
He said students returning has been a “delicate balance,” and noted there would be risks and problems associated with not allowing students to attend this year, such as interrupting people’s education and leaving people isolated at home, especially for those new starters whose last year of college was heavily disrupted and home-based.
“I think coronavirus is going to be with us for some time, so we have to try and create an environment that is as safe as we can make it,” he said.
“You can’t create an environment which is totally risk free, but you can manage the risks as best you can, and try and make it as safe and secure as possible.
“Where we can, we are making the student experience as normal as we possibly can. There are clearly some constraints around things that we cannot do. But we are doing what we can to make it a really nice place to come and study, to live, to learn, to work, to meet people, and to allow people to move on with the next stage of their lives.”
There are also measures in place to enforce the rules should students not comply. On the possibility of evicting students for breaking rules, Prof Neely said “never say never, but that would be an absolutely last resort”.
He said: “If there are egregious breaches of discipline or the code of conduct or indeed people go further then we will look at those on a case by case basis.
“We have got a bunch of very sensible, bright young adults who are coming to university. They are keen to learn. You can tell they are excited about being here. There’s a sense of buzz around the place, and it’s great to see students back,” he said, adding “So far I’ve seen really sensible behaviour across the colleges and student population at large.”