Nightclubs, halls and three months til September

We are now only three months or so away from universities beginning to welcome students onto campus for the autumn term.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

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So in the usual absence of anything resembling guidance from our overlords at the Department for Too Little Too Late, it’s never not important to take a look at what we might be able to learn from the year just gone.

Vaccination is going well of course, but adults aged 18-22 are at the end of the vaccine queue – and it’s really quite uncertain whether most students will have been double-vaccinated before returning to campus in September.

The headline in this jazzy pink press release from Cambridge that’s making its way onto the usual sites is that a combination of testing programmes for staff and students, infection control measures and genomic surveillance helped to both reduce the number of cases of Covid-19 at the university, and helped to keep the wider community safe.

Last October when the wider country was still woefully underprepared and surprised at the demand on testing capacity arising from the return of schools, the university was one of the few that was able to introduce a free weekly asymptomatic screening programme (using proper PCR tests) for all of its students living in college accommodation, complemented by a testing programme for staff and students with symptoms of possible Covid-19.

What we now have – with the usual “these are pre-prints” caveats about peer review – is the results of a couple of studies looking at the role of the screening programme and other infection control measures in managing infections at and around the university and the results of the genomic analysis.

During the autumn term, the Covid-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium analysed 446 genomes from the university’s testing programmes. The headline-grabber in the context of ongoing speculation about June 21st is that 70 per cent of all university cases belonged to one genetic cluster, likely dispersed by attending a nightclub.

The team found that the majority of transmission chains were short, suggesting that infection control measures implemented by the university – including the asymptomatic screening, generous support for self-isolation and in-house contact tracing – were successful in controlling transmission.

As last time we looked at Cambridge though, the results are not necessarily easy to translate to other universities. Is there more mixing between town and gown at Anglia Ruskin up the road? Almost certainly. But would ARU have generated the same amplification from one nightclub event between its own students? Maybe not.

I’ve been a bit bemused by universities hurling out “we may have to put lectures online in pursuit of public health” statements when no such capacity reductions appear to be being considered for student accommodation. And the Cambridge findings present a challenge on that issue – they found minimal evidence of transmission in university departments, or between students and staff, and found that transmission mainly occurred within student accommodation and/or between students on the same courses.

The point is that when Ben Warne (the man behind Cambridge’s asymptomatic testing scheme) says that “we need to be cautious about access to certain types of high-risk venues during a pandemic, particularly in the context of a young, susceptible student population”, he’s not just talking about sweaty basement nightclubs. And even to the extent to which he is, they might be more problematic for students hanging out together on the way into them and at house parties after them than well-ventilated ones are for the general population.

There’s a reason why, for example, in Leicester that students in both halls and house-shares are being offered the jab early this week to combat the Indian variant.

I know saying this will be controversial – but all of this points to a mild delay to the start of term, and a really decent case for early vaccination and vaccination passports for use in student accommodation, classrooms and student venues. I’m not saying that Cambridge’s “screen everyone a lot” thing isn’t important – but isn’t it just easier at this stage to get everyone jabbed and then start the term as “normal”?

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