The Department for Education ‘student travel window’ guidance published on 11th November 2020 is
currently being enacted, between 3rd and 9th December. The guidance was leaked online, contains
key omissions (e.g., nothing about January’s return; nothing stated about travel or testing for staff,
very little on international students) as well as key messaging inconsistencies (e.g., it says nothing
about the risk of contracting the virus while travelling after ending a period of self-isolation, except
“only use public transport” if there is “no other option” while at the same time promotes train travel
online). The published guidance also came too late and fell far short of the stated aim to reduce the
risk of student travel in December. Yet Michelle Donelan, Minister of State for Universities, said on
BBC Radio 4 11.11.20, “SAGE warned in their advice to us on Higher Education months ago of the fact
that the mass movement of students back for Christmas was a consideration.”

The DfE guidance recommended testing to “support” the return home of students but this has already
proved highly variable in terms of approach (e.g., from use of inhouse facilities and lighthouse labs to
private outsourcing). The efficacy of the tests being widely has been subject to much concern
regarding the percentage false negative results which undermines the reassurance they are designed
to give ahead of travelling home. We do not know how many universities are actually offering testing;
how many students can access testing if wanted; how many students are taking up the offer of testing,
or “how they will react to positive or negative results, among many other things.” Finally, the logistics
of testing thousands of people “in such a small timeframe – while following social distancing rules” is
“extremely challenging”.

While a Covid-19 vaccine is closer to being realised, it is highly unlikely that university staff and
students will be vaccinated before Easter. We do not know what the impact will be of the ‘student
travel window’ and the Christmas break on numbers of infections in January. Thus, Independent SAGE
maintains its position to keep universities open safely by maximising remote learning except
practice-based courses – in addition to reducing the risks of transmission in enclosed indoor spaces –
until Easter 2021. We set out the reasons below and consider January in more detail in Section 3.

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