That a second wave of coronavirus infections would cause further illness and death, and disrupt social and economic life, was predictable and predicted. In the UK, and other European countries including France and Spain, that second wave arrived sooner than expected. But while the timing was uncertain, it was widely known that the start of the new academic year at thousands of UK schools, and more than 130 universities and degree-awarding colleges, would bring new risks. Large numbers of children and young adults, along with teachers and other staff, have begun to mix with each other after many months spent (mostly) at home and in small family units.
So it is hugely disappointing that robust and tailored testing and tracing arrangements for schools and universities are still not in place, except where a handful of institutions (including two of the wealthiest in the country: Eton and Cambridge) have done this themselves. Having rightly decided that reopening schools in September should be their top priority, and also reached the more questionable conclusion that students should take up higher-education places as planned, it was incumbent upon ministers to make these settings as safe as possible. It is difficult to understand how they and their officials, in Scotland as well as Westminster, failed to plan more effectively for the chaotic situation that is now unfolding, with students bombarded with mixed messages after outbreaks at universities including Manchester Metropolitan and Glasgow.
Last week, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, refused to rule out a ban on students going home for Christmas. On Sunday, Scottish ministers changed their minds about new rules that had forbidden any home visits at all, deciding that there were circumstances in which they were allowed. In Manchester 1,700 students locked down in their flats were told not to leave, even in order to get tested, while in Birmingham police patrolled student accommodation on the lookout for gatherings of more than six. Meanwhile, the shadow education secretary, Kate Green, along with the National Union of Students and University and College Union, raised the question of whether students should even be at university, in a physical sense, at all. Until test and trace could be guaranteed, they said, teaching should be (or mainly be) online.
The situation is extraordinarily difficult, with cases at about 40 universities so far and further outbreaks expected. Gavin Williamson’s failure to address it head-on on Monday was a mistake. Students and their families are justifiably angry. Even in normal times, many find it hard to adjust. Now universities, as well as ministers, stand accused of recruiting students on a false prospectus, because of their reliance on the income from rents.
But a shift to online learning is only at best a partial solution. Students in Manchester and elsewhere are not thought to have caught the virus in lectures, but through social contacts. This contact with peers is part of the reason most people go to university, and would not automatically cease because in-person teaching has. Besides, many art, science and other courses require specialist equipment and can’t be taught remotely. There is also the question of knock-on effects for schools and colleges, because if lecture theatres are judged too dangerous to work and study in, where does that leave teachers and schools?
Final figures on the take-up of university places are not yet known. But predictions that the recruitment of international students would collapse due to Covid have not come true. This worst-case scenario having been avoided, universities must do all they can to ensure that students get the education they deserve, as well as obeying pandemic rules put in place to protect us all. But the greatest responsibility, as ever, lies with the government, whose job it is to make the test-and-trace system work. The future, as well as the present, depends on it.