The Cabinet minister sought to dispel worries that all university students would have to self-isolate before being allowed back to their families.
Ministers and officials are now drawing up plans on how the return of hundreds of thousands of students can be done safely. Some may still have to self-isolate at university at the end of term if they test positive or have been in contact recently with someone who has had Covid-19.
Universities will be expected to support any students who have to stay on beyond the end of term because of coronavirus restrictions.
Speaking to the Commons on Tuesday afternoon, he said the Government would work with universities to make sure all students are supported to return home for Christmas if they choose to do so.
He said: “I know there has been some anxiety about the impact safety measures will have on the Christmas holidays.
“Students are important members of the communities that they choose to study in. We expect them to follow the same guidance as those same local communities.
“We are going to work with universities to make sure that all students are supported to return home safely and spend Christmas with their loved ones if they choose to do so.”
Ministers are working on the plans for the return home at Christmas on the assumption that the pandemic could be significantly worse by then.
However, Mr Williamson sought to reassure students and parents that they will not be kept apart during the festive season after a series of Covid outbreaks at universities which has seen hundreds of students having to self-isolate.
Mr Williamson said he does not believe students should face stricter measures than others in society and that it is “essential” that measures are put in place to ensure that students can return home for Christmas.
He said: “It’s essential we put in place measures to ensure this can happen, while minimising the risk of transmission.
“Where there are specific circumstances that warrant it, there may be a requirement for some students to self-isolate at the end of term and we will be working with the sector to ensure this will be possible, including ending in-person learning if that is deemed to be necessary.
“My department will publish this guidance shortly so that every student will be able to spend Christmas with their family.”
He added: “Students as well as the wider community accept when we are living in a global pandemic we have to operate in a society with restrictions.
“But I do not believe that we should look to inflict stricter measures on students or expect higher standards of behaviour from them than we would from any other sector of society – there must be a parity.”
Mr Williamson also praised students and universities for following the guidance in a responsible way.
The Education Secretary told MPs: “We’ve now seen the new intake of first-year students who are beginning a new chapter in their lives at university together with those who are returning to carry on their studies.
“I know this will not be the start that any of them would have wanted and expected, and I’d just like to say that I am pleased to see both universities and students have followed the guidance in a responsible way, putting themselves, their friends and the local community in a safe place and out of harm’s way.”
During a media round this morning, skills minister Gillian Keegan said: “We would expect students to be able to go home for Christmas. Of course, that is something that absolutely we will be working towards and Gavin will lay out more details of that later on.”
Meanwhile, a world health chief stressed that Londoners can avoid a full-scale second Covid-19 wave without a lockdown if they change their behaviour to reduce social contacts.
Dr David Nabarro, a World Health Organisation coronavirus envoy for Europe, warned the capital could not escape the growing epidemic in Britain. However, he emphasised that London could limit its impact if people followed social distancing and good hygiene rules and guidance.
“You can’t stop it but we can reduce the intensity through the way in which we all behave,” he told the Evening Standard.
“The virus is going to resurge in most of Europe but the intensity of the surge will very much depend on whether or not people are able to make these shifts in behaviour. We have seen from the lockdown that you can slow the spread of the virus through the way in which you reduce chances of people bumping into each other. It’s simply that. We have to reduce the frequency of contact between people. That is possible without having to have lockdown.
“That is our contention and what we are really trying to encourage everybody in Europe to do, to set it as a goal, to avoid more lockdowns by behaviour changes and it can be done.
“We have seen in other parts of the world that it’s not an impossible task.”
Latest figures for confirmed Covid cases show a rise in every borough in the capital, with 14 including Redbridge, Newham, Tower Hamlets, Hillingdon, Ealing and Enfield seeing more than 100 in the week to September 24.
Redbridge had the highest rate of new cases per 100,000, at 68.1, followed by Barking and Dagenham at 57.8.
A rate of 50 is seen as one indicator for an area to require stricter restrictions. However, Covid levels in London are still far below the worst hotspots in the North of England.
Official figures showed today that the number of deaths involving Covid-19 registered in England and Wales has risen for a second week in a row.
A total of 139 deaths, including 13 in London, were registered in the week ending September 18 with Covid-19 mentioned on the death certificate, according to the Office for National Statistics.
This was up from 99 deaths in the week to September 11, and 78 deaths in the week to September 4. Registered deaths involving Covid-19 increased in six of the nine English regions.
They were the North-West (39, up nine on the previous week’s total); the West Midlands (15, up eight); London (13, up seven); Yorkshire & the Humber (21, up seven); the North-East (eight, up five); and the East Midlands (14, up four).