A third national lockdown- how does this impact universities?

Yesterday, on 4 January 2021, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a third national lockdown for England. In his address, he explains that the reason for this decision is the rapidly increasing numbers of coronavirus cases throughout the country and the impact on the NHS.

Following this announcement, the government has released new guidance on the lockdown restrictions (“January 2021 Guidance”) but as yet there has not been detailed accompanying sector specific guidance for universities. The January 2021 Guidance, which includes guidance for students and universities in England, supersedes the guidance issued on 23 December 2020 for the higher education sector (“December 2020 Guidance”).  As universities will be aware, this guidance set out a timetable for all students to return to university in the Spring term of 2021 and included a testing regime. Unfortunately, due to the national lockdown, this can no longer happen.

Under the January 2021 Guidance, students on the following professional courses should return to face to face learning at university:

  • Medicine & dentistry;
  • Subjects allied to medicine/ health;
  • Veterinary science;
  • Education (initial teacher training;
  • Social work; and
  • Courses which require Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Body (PSRB) assessments and mandatory activity which is scheduled for January and which cannot be rescheduled (universities have to notify students if this applies to them).

The January 2021 Guidance states that such students should “be tested twice, upon arrival or self-isolate for ten days”.  It also permits students on the above courses to “meet in groups of more than [their] household as part of [their] formal education or training, where necessary”. It further adds that students should “socially distance from anyone [they] do not live with wherever possible”.

Contrary to the December 2020 Guidance and further changing the approach set out in a letter issued by the universities minister as recently as 30 December, the January 2021 Guidance tells students who are not on one of the above courses (including students who are on practical courses which are not listed above) to “remain where they are wherever possible, and start their term online, as facilitated by [their] university until at least Mid-February”.

In addition, students who are living at university are told “not to move back and forward between [their] permanent home and student home during term time”.

Although it provides an overview of the new restrictions, the January 2021 Guidance does not provide universities with comprehensive guidance on how to manage the start of the new term. In particular, there is no guidance on issues such as how to manage international students who have recently or may soon to be returning to the UK. The government has said it will update the existing December 2020 Guidance to reflect the January 2021 Guidance, so we can expect the guidance to be fleshed out in the coming days, with a Parliamentary vote on implementing consequential changes to the relevant legislation on 6 January.


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