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Dear Mr Williamson and Mr Zahawi…

  • 11 March 2021
  • By Giles Carden & Lawrence Young

Today’s blog is an open letter to the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, and the Minister for COVID-19 Vaccine Deployment, Nadhim Zahawi, written by Giles Carden, the Chief of Staff at Lancaster University, and Lawrence Young, a Virologist and Professor of Molecular Oncology at the University of Warwick.

Dear Mr Williamson and Mr Zahawi,

The likelihood of a full return of university students to campus this academic year is uncertain, with the Government planning to review the position after Easter. At the time of writing vaccines are currently planned to be administered to all over 50s and those that are vulnerable by the end of April and thereafter to all other adults.

Recently published data from Public Health England show that 17.8% of university students aged 17-to-25 years old had antibodies from prior COVID-19 infection as measured in December 2020. The highest rate of antibody positivity (49%) was found in those who lived in halls of residence and this seropositivity was associated with being younger, likely reflecting first year undergraduates. This confirms data from a recent case study by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) which also found that the risk of COVID-19 infection was greater in university residential settings such as halls of residence, with little evidence of virus spread during face-to-face teaching in classrooms and lecture theatres. While this highlights the need for stringent infection control measures in students sharing accommodation, it also demonstrates that the majority of students have levels of previous infection similar to those in the general population in England – 15.3% as reported by the ONS in mid-January. This means that most students remain susceptible to COVID-19 infection and would be capable of transmitting infection to others even in the absence of developing symptoms. 18 to 29-year olds are the last group of adults to be vaccinated in England and they are scheduled to receive the first dose of vaccine by the end of this July.

China has announced that students travelling overseas to study are to be a priority group for vaccination but many other students arriving from overseas are unlikely to have been vaccinated by the autumn as globally most countries vaccination programmes lag behind the UK’s. PIE News reported on 7 December that the Department of Health and Social Care has confirmed that international students will be able to access vaccinations, in much the same way they access healthcare. However, this raises significant logistical issues – how to ensure that overseas students receive the first dose of the vaccine and how home students who have received the first dose arrange to receive their second dose. With the mass movement of students nationally and internationally it is vital that the vaccination programme proceeds unabated if we are to ensure that students are fully protected from infection. A large group of unvaccinated or partially vaccinated individuals could result in the continued transmission of infection on campuses as well as encouraging the further generation of virus variants.

The Government has not yet explained how the vaccination programme for university students, particularly those from overseas, will be coordinated and we would urge ministers to provide this clarity as soon as possible. A properly coordinated approach would continue the excellent progress of the UK vaccination programme to date and ensure that our campus communities are protected, thus significantly improving the student experience, both academic and social, while also supporting the sustainability of a sector that is crucial to the future prosperity of the country. 

Yours sincerely,

Dr Giles Carden, Chief of Staff, Lancaster University

Professor Lawrence Young, Virologist and Professor of Molecular Oncology, University of Warwick

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