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Covid-19 infection rates at universities in England and Wales are up to seven times higher than in their home cities, Guardian analysis has found, amid concern that growing student outbreaks risk spilling over into local communities.
Sheffield University reported 588 student infections in the week ending 8 October, an infection rate of 2,028 per 100,000 population. This rate was about seven times higher than that for the city council.
Birmingham University recorded 307 student infections in the week ending 6 October, equivalent to a rate of 1,023 per 100,000 population. This was six times higher than the rate for the local council.
Manchester University had the highest student infection rate per capita, with 1,155 cases reported in the week ending 6 October, equivalent to 2,888 per 100,000 population. This was more than five times higher than the local authority rate.
The analysis looked at 10 of the largest universities by student population in England and Wales for which Covid-19 data was available. In all but two universities, the University of Liverpool and the University of South Wales, the student infection rates were higher than those for the total local population over the same time period.
The figures per local authority area were correct as of 4.30pm on 9 October.
Although the figures do not provide evidence that the virus is spreading from universities to the wider community, experts said the significantly higher student infection rates posed a significant public health risk.
Prof Gavin Yamey, the director of the Centre for Policy Impact in Global Health at Duke University, who is leading research into the spread of Covid across higher education, warned: “It is impossible to hermetically seal off students and staff from the wider community.”
Pointing to a study that found the reopening of US universities and colleges earlier this summer contributed to more than 3,000 new daily cases in their local areas, he added: “I am horrified that UK universities failed to learn from the great American university reopening debacle.”
Martyn Moss, the University and College Union (UCU) north-west England regional official said student areas in Manchester, such as Fallowfield, were reporting soaring rates of infection. He added: “We are in a nightmare situation where large numbers of asymptomatic people may be spreading the virus to higher risk groups in the local community.”
Gabriel Scally, visiting professor of public health at Bristol University and a member of the Independent Sage committee, said the student outbreaks would have an enormous effect if young people choose “to go home and bring the virus with them or if they mix in the community”.
He added: “We shouldn’t blithely accept the spread of this virus, which I think perhaps some of the universities are guilty of.”
A spokesman for Manchester University, which has moved teaching online until 30 October, said the local council and universities in the city were knocking on doors to reassure students and remind them of the local and national pandemic restrictions.
Sarah Doran, a consultant in public health who is leading Manchester’s response to Covid-19, said a pilot scheme to mass-test students in halls of residence was a factor in the high figures reported. She added: “Extra walk-in testing is being made available this week in Fallowfield – for both students and local residents.”
A Sheffield University spokeswoman said it had suspended most in-person teaching until 19 October due to the rising infection rates among the student body and in the wider community.
A Birmingham University spokesman said students had direct access to testing on campus, and more tests were being conducted in the city than in many other parts of the UK.
A Birmingham city council spokeswoman added: “There is no evidence that Covid has spread from students in halls of residence to the wider community, but this is being monitored closely.”
A spokesman for Universities UK, which represents 137 higher education institutions, said: “It is more important than ever that the government commits to a mass testing strategy for university students and staff with rapid turnaround of results and effective tracing of contacts.”
A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “Universities are prepared for a local outbreak, and we have worked with them to help draw up plans for measures in the event of positive cases on campus, or a rise in cases locally.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Fears grow student Covid infections will spread into local areas in England and Wales | Education