If mass testing is one of the answers, who will pay for it?

Some quick updates on students, coronavirus testing and developments in Scotland

First, in Scotland we now know that the government’s Covid-19 advisory group spent much of its meeting on July 23rd discussing issues relating to further and higher education. Of concern was the arrival of students from both elsewhere in the UK, and countries overseas – with higher rates of coronavirus noted as “a risk factor which will need to be controlled”.

It was also worried about student conduct – noting that it would be important for students to “understand how to behave positively in line with Scottish rules and expectations” for shopping, transport and social settings as well as education settings, stressing that universities’ arrangements should “support and encourage this”. Scotland, it said, could learn from international experience and “examples of good practice” – but we don’t (yet) know which ones it’s referring to.

Meanwhile one of the members of the group – Edinburgh University’s Devi Sridhar, took to Twitter to call for all sorts of measures:

All of which has prompted Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie to raise the issue in Parliament. Noting that international arrivals would probably be the “biggest single influx” of people since the pandemic and that many would be arriving from “virus hotspots”, he called for them all to be tested, telling the First Minister to “Make it happen.”

In response Sturgeon said it was a “really important issue” which was ”very high up in my mind at the moment”, and said the government would consider Sridhar’s call “very carefully”

Meanwhile the Tony Blair Institute is not necessarily the first place you would look for viable solutions to higher education’s problems, but has published an interesting proposal for the sector to deal with the risks of a return to campus.

The framing here is all four governments’ current approach – which relies upon citizens identifying that they have symptoms, contacting a version of the NHS Test and Trace service, getting a test and self-isolating (along with the people they live with) for a specified number of days.

We’ve worried about this on the site before – how keen would a student be to fess up about their own symptoms and then cause the whole of their house, halls floor or seminar group to have to self-isolate for two weeks?

Generally, TBI argues that as we’ve learned more about the virus (particularly how and among whom it is transmitted) it’s become clear that a testing strategy relying on individuals with symptoms to volunteer has now got to evolve to account for non-symptomatic carriers.

And crucially, rather than relying on people to self-identify for tests, it says that a mass-testing regime requires a shift to people being regularly identified to be tested.

The case study for this trailed in the press has been Premier League, where having acknowledged the role of asymptomatic spreaders early on (footballers like students are a demographic that are likely to be asymptomatic) they successfully went for systemic, twice-weekly testing of every player and staff member across all 20 clubs, along with officials and others involved in the sport.

In the published paper, TBI figures this could be scalable and identifies higher education as a good next sector for a large pilot. Noting that students expect to meet new people as much as they expect lectures – and pointing out that networking and interactions with others improves social mobility outcomes – the proposal at first is to test everyone in halls, both university and private, once a week from September.

Apart from concerns about commuter students, the kicker could be the cost. “Universities could contribute to the cost of testing – alongside private providers of halls of residence”, says the proposal, which would be easier to deliver in some institutions than others given both budgets and the availability of institutional testing capacity.

But given adopting this approach “would give students the confidence to fully participate in university life while also signalling to other sectors the possibilities of mass testing”, perhaps the question is whether this will be forced on the sector – or whether it gets there first. If nothing else it seems odd that the Tony Blair Institute has an answer to a problem that, at least so far, the sector itself hasn’t recognised needs solving.

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