Covid-19 tests should be compulsory for all university students and staff to prevent outbreaks on campuses and protect communities, according to an independent group of scientists.
Testing should be carried out either before or as soon as people arrive on campus, with further tests conducted regularly, said the Independent Sage committee.
The recommendation comes in a report published on Friday that advises universities to provide online learning as the default rather than in-person teaching, noting the latter carried “the most risk of transmission” of coronavirus.
The scientists also advised that freshers’ week events, which usually revolve around parties and drinking, should be held online. Socialising should be restricted to students’ residential bubbles, they added.
Where in-person teaching is necessary, students and staff should wear face coverings and practise physical distancing in classrooms, the expert group advised. It said students should be asked to sign a social behaviour agreement, with breaches possibly leading to disciplinary action.
The recommendation ahead of universities returning in the autumn comes as Manchester, which has the fourth-largest student population in the UK, remains in local lockdown owing to a recent significant rise in the number of Covid-19 cases, and fears that Birmingham, which has the eighth largest, could soon have one imposed.
Stephen Reicher, a behavioural science expert on the Independent Sage committee, said in a city such as London the proportion of students in the population did not pose a significant risk to local infection rates, but that this was not the case in smaller university towns.
“Somewhere like St Andrews, where there are as many students as local people, the last thing we want to happen is a spike in infections,” added Reicher, a professor of social psychology at St Andrews.
The report also recommended that universities should provide accommodation where students can safely quarantine, and have food and online lessons provided. It said halls of residence were likely to be a main source of transmission of Covid-19 and recommended temperature checks on entering buildings.
Prof Devi Sridhar, the chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, welcomed the report but cautioned against banning social activities.
Sridhar, a member of the Scottish government’s coronavirus advisory group, said: “I don’t think you can ban things without the risk of driving them underground. You have to be realistic that the 20-29 years age group is least likely to abide by pandemic restrictions. The approach should be more about harm reduction, such as holding social events outdoors under tents.”
Jo Grady, the general secretary of the University and College Union, said: “Before universities can reopen safely we need to see much lower numbers of cases, a national plan for social distancing, comprehensive testing, and university-wide strategies based on risk assessments and the protection of those most vulnerable to Covid.”
The NUS president, Larissa Kennedy, said: “We hope that universities will take this advice onboard and finally provide clarity to students on how their courses will be delivered, what support will be available to them and what social activities will be open.”
A Universities UK spokesman said many universities were already implementing some of the report’s recommendations, such as advice on face coverings. He added: “Universities are working in partnership with their local authorities, public health bodies and others to ensure that effective and rapid outbreak response plans are in place and clearly understood. This includes ensuring that students or staff showing symptoms of Covid-19 have access to local testing and are supported to self-isolate – and we welcome this report’s focus on the need for clarity about testing for universities.”
The Department for Education has published guidance for universities on reopening but this did not recommend mandatory testing. A spokeswoman said: “The safety of students and staff must be a priority, and we expect universities to make judgments based on the latest public health guidance.”