Mass testing gives students a shot in the arm

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For the first time in this Covid-world we’re living in, I feel able to praise a government policy regarding university students. The recently announced plans for mass-testing of students at the end of term come as a much-needed demonstration of proper leadership and advance planning. In contrast to Matt Hancock’s previous claim that he could not guarantee students’ return home for Christmas, this feels like a real act of humanity.

The government have just announced the week-long “travel window” after national lockdown lifts on 2nd December, during which students can return home safely. The Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan, tweeted that tests will “complement” this staggered departure from universities “with mass testing, using rapid tests that pick up asymptomatic cases,” targeting “areas with highest R rates, highest infection rates and most vulnerable students”.

Despite the potential problems of this staggered return, such as end-of-term deadlines and booking advance train and plane tickets (and ignoring the frankly comical BBC headline: “Students to go home in evacuation-style operation”), it bodes well that central government are already enacting a secure exit-strategy for universities nationwide.

This feels like a refreshing and reassuring leap forward from the chaotic start of term we all experienced

Even more impressive is the promise of lateral flow tests (LFTs): rapid Covid-19 tests that return results in under an hour. Durham University are already at the forefront of LFT trials amongst UK universities, first piloted in Stephenson, Van Mildert and University Colleges. The plans to roll this one-hour testing out across all Durham colleges are even more encouraging.

The logic of mass-testing is simple. The earlier a Covid-19 is identified, the quicker they can isolate, and the fewer people they will transmit the virus to. It’s recognised that nearly half of Covid-19 infections are transmitted by asymptomatic carriers. Mass-testing amongst students is thus particularly important as the 18-25 age group is most likely to present only very mild symptoms, or none at all.

In general, the speed and efficiency of testing centres in Durham this term has been impressive: test slots available within the hour, and results returned in under 24 hours. Access to testing has been vital in allowing positive cases to isolate rapidly, and allowing negative cases to return to face-to-face teaching as soon as possible. I only hope this speaks to the national picture.

In early September, Matt Hancock inadvertently blamed the public for the shortages of coronavirus tests, telling BBC Breakfast that only 75% of people getting tests were symptomatic, and that he wanted to keep tests available just for those with actual Covid-19 symptoms. He was quickly rebuked for this statement; it is, of course, those asymptomatic cases of the virus that pose the greatest threat of widespread transmission.

I’m proud that Durham is leading the way for other universities on this front

It beggars belief that hundreds of thousands of students were allowed to travel back to university in September without any kind of widespread testing. This could have prevented the huge spikes amongst student populations across the country, catching the asymptomatic cases early before transmitting it to their new households. The resources for mass-testing were just clearly not in place, but the strategy for the end of this term paints a more hopeful picture for the future.

The government website explains how mass-testing of students “will provide additional assurances that where tests are negative, there is a reduced risk in students travelling home, and a reduced risk of transmission to their family and home community”. The key word here is “assurances”. Mass testing is not simply a case of catching positive cases, but allowing the largely negative population to continue with their daily lives “assured” of their safety.

Durham University is yet to announce exactly how and when mass-testing will be carried out here, but the government’s announcement feels like a refreshing and reassuring leap forward from the chaotic start of term we all experienced. Mass testing in universities, schools, hospitals, and offices is the best way to mitigate the spread and impact of the virus whilst we wait for a vaccine. I’m proud that Durham is leading the way for other universities on this front.

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