The government ignored SAGE advice in September to stop uni face-to-face teaching

Closing universities could have helped stop a second wave, top scientists predicted

The government ignored SAGE advice issued in September to stop face-to-face teaching at universities.

“All university and college teaching to be online unless face-to-face teaching is absolutely essential,” the group of top scientists recommended on 21st September.

It was one of five interventions needed to stop a second wave, reveal minutes from the meeting, which were released last night. In the absence of government instructions to do so, only a handful of universities – including Manchester and Newcastle – have stopped face-to-face teaching since the start of term.

Covid cases have been reported at over 100 unis, and both Manchester and Nottingham have reported over 1,000 cases among students. Student areas make up all five of the country’s Covid hotspots.

SAGE suggested that unis may be resistant to move teaching online as they’d be worried about losing money.

To counter this, the group suggested a “clear statement about online teaching for FE and HE could avoid institutions believing that they have to maintain in-person tuition to avoid being at a competitive disadvantage.”

A screenshot from the impact document released alongside the SAGE minutes

Closing universities would reduce the R number by between 0.2 and 0.5, SAGE predicted. The UK’s current R number range, as of Friday 9th October, is 1.2-1.5. An R number below one means the spread of the virus is reversing, with each infected person infecting less than one additional person.

SAGE is the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, which consists of 27 top scientists. Its meetings are observed by political and civil service advisers.

Alongside moving teaching online, SAGE also recommended a “circuit-breaker” lockdown; banning household mixing indoors; closing bars, restaurants and gyms; and advice to work from home. Only the call to work from home has since been adopted as national advice by the government.

A screenshot from the minutes of the 21st September SAGE meeting

In an impact document released alongside the minutes, SAGE alternatively suggested that all teaching be online for the first two or three weeks of term “to reduce number of contacts among students and staff and less seeding of infection”, as a substitute for quarantining all students as they arrived at uni. This would have been followed by alternating weeks of online and in-person teaching.

It also saw the food parcels crisis coming, saying that unis who failed to support quarantining students with food would invite “distress, poor adherence, and loss of trust”.

“The chaos we see on campus and in halls of residence now is a direct result of ministers’ decision to ignore that advice and choose to put the health of university staff, students and local communities at risk,” said UCU general secretary Jo Grady.

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