More questions than answers for students at the Freedom Day presser

The first question for the PM at the “delay freedom day by a four weeks” presser was about universities and students.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Maybe some find it reassuring that the PM doesn’t look like he knows what’s coming in these video recorded questions from the public before gets them. The problem is that he might well be aware of them beforehand, but either he’s forgotten what he’s supposed to say in response, or just couldn’t be bothered to prep a decent answer.

Over 25s can now get the first dose of vaccine – which means that 12 weeks from now plus two weeks for the vaccine to kick in. That takes us to early September when they’re fully vaccinated. So Andrew from Worthing’s question was: does the government have any plans to prioritise university students so that they too are fully vaccinated by the time they go off to university. And here was the Prime Minister’s painful, flailing response:

Thanks very much, Andrew. Well actually what we’re, we’re seeing today is I think the 23 and 24 year olds will be able to, to come forward and get their, their vaccine doses as of, as of today, or tomorrow, so we’re going as fast as we, as we can.

And erm by July the 19th erm two thirds of adults aged, all adults in the country would have had, would have had two doses by the end of, by July 19th. We will have all adults, everybody over 18 would have had a first dose. You’re perfectly right, Andrew that there will still be some time to run before university students get vaccinated in July will get their second dose. But we will certainly look at what we can do to accelerate second doses as we’re doing now for people across the, across the country.

And if there are outbreaks in particular places, as we’ve done surge vaccination and surge testing we may do that in those places, as it may be necessary.

Chris Whitty then piped up with a better, if still ultimately unsatisfactory, answer:

One thing I would add is just to remind people that the system in the UK has prioritised in strict order those who are at highest risk, all the way down, down the down the ratings, and for the great majority people of university age, other than those pre existing health conditions, fortunately, there are at much lower risk than older ages so we’ve gone down in age ranges, and that’s the reason for the ordering, but as the prime minister says, we would expect that everybody in university would have had at least one dose of vaccination by the start of next time.

So what are we to make of all that?

One thing that feels fairly clear is that there’s not much point in continuing with measures like low capacity teaching rooms and masks on campus if halls are still full.

The key hope/assumption was buried in the PM’s answer to Laura Kuenssberg – who asked when we might expect all adults to have been double jabbed (note the bolding for the important bit):

…at a certain stage, we’re going to have to learn to live with the virus, and to manage it as best we can. And what we’re trying to do now. This delay is to reduce the current surge and we think we can, we can do that and we think that a two week delay would would make a substantial difference in the four week delay, we think would make even more of a difference in reducing the overall number of deaths and that’s why we’re, that’s why we’re doing it at the end of the that period of by July, the 19th, we do think that you will have built up a very considerable wall of immunity around the whole of the population, and at that stage, on the basis of the evidence that I can see now, I’m confident that we will be able to go forward with a full step for the full unlock.

That suggests that either they think some kind of immunity level will be reached that starts to cause the virus to melt away or barely transmit, OR (/AND) they at that point consider the risk so low to under 50s that they just say “be sensible and watch out” to them.

In any case, if we get to the week of your university’s Freshers and 18-year-olds aren’t all double jabbed, we may be in a position where the government is saying “the risks are too low for us to legally intervene” but “people that run certain things should take care”.

That would then place pressure on universities to delay the “migration event” voluntarily, because of the (minor but heightened) risks posed by halls of residence specifically, and new student household formation in September/October generally.

The point is that the mood music is that there won’t be formal restrictions on universities opening anything by Freshers. But if a university then goes beyond the legal minimums, and restricts or socially distances lecture theatres but fills halls, what would be the rationale for the contradiction of caution in the former, but “go for it” in the latter?

Especially if, five minutes later, halls are being surge tested and locked down left right and centre.

So you’ve got to be looking at a decent bet on a delay to the migration event at this point.

Even in that scenario, international students remain a policy puzzle. Many won’t have had Jab 1, some will have had the wrong Jab 1 (as their vaccine may not have been approved in the UK), and current hotel quarantine capacity won’t cope with the overall numbers.

We know that there’s lobbying going on that would see university halls supplanting hotel quarantine capacity, but there would still be major issues around non university PBSA providers, HMOs, international students being walled off into “plague” blocks, and so on.

Even for home students this gets pretty messy pretty quickly. As my colleague David Kernohan points out, the other issue for students who study away from home booking Jab 1 over the next six weeks is – where do they book Jab 2 for? Their home address or their university address? And what do July/August born seventeen year olds do that are off to university this September?

There are inter-UK issues. Can you book Jab 2 in another part of the UK or do you have to register with a new GP to do so? Drop ins for dose two would make that easier if everywhere is offering that. But are they? And what will the minimum number of weeks be set at when a student might be able to drop in for Jab 2?

In an ideal world, this would all be sped up from here. Some will argue that the risks posed by the Astra-Zeneca jab are so low that keeping it away from under 30s may be what’s causing an apparent slow-down in vaccination and that that decision ought to be reconsidered. It certainly feels like there are Pfizer Moderna supply issues that are hampering things here.

But overall, as we noted at the weekend, there are only so many more weeks when the (double) vaccinated will put up with not being able to board the plane to Benidorm. If (and it’s a big if) we continue to see an exponential rise in cases amongst young adults the government still only has limited choices between now and “everyone’s been double jabbed”.

You can:

  • lift all restrictions and let it spread amongst the young – but there’s the moral hazard of rare “long Covid” cases for those who’ve not yet been able to get both jabs;
  • ask everyone to wait to until everyone’s been double jabbed – but there’s the Benidorm problem;
  • implement/retain restrictions on the young while lifting/easing restrictions on the old (a version of which is implement/retain restrictions on those not double jabbed while lifting/easing restrictions on those that have been) – but vaccination passports have all but been ruled out.

Given none of those look likely or politically palatable, the only other option other than “just risk it” is controls on (im)migration. Maybe Michelle Donelan was right in March – there is indeed a “mass internal migration” issue, it’s just that it actually applies in September.

In any case, it’s pretty clear that universities will be getting little certainty or steer for weeks, again. This is another year where if I was an applicant who can defer and keep the place on hold, I would. At this stage I’m not sure it’s worth the risk if nobody is prepared to underwrite that risk.

At least this year there will be a truck full of part time jobs about, and a decent chance of travel.

One response to “More questions than answers for students at the Freedom Day presser

  1. “Maybe Michelle Donelan was right in March – there is indeed a “mass internal migration” issue, it’s just that it actually applies in September.”

    Actually there are several ‘mass migrations’ throughout the University year, the incoming overseas students arriving for pre-sessionals started earlier this month. And last weekend was end of semester for many, with covid spreading BBQ’s and parties, plus the sodding football piss ups in SU bars. We’ve seen cases go from ZERO to currently ~70 confirmed with 140 isolating in the last two weeks, and who knows how many asymptomatic cases that are now migrating ‘home’ for the summer.

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