No, SAGE hasn’t told students they should stay at university over Christmas

On Wednesday evening Twitter appeared to go in meltdown when an iNews “exclusive” ran with the headline “Ministers ‘must tell students to stay on campus over Christmas’ to prevent Covid-19 outbreaks”.

The Telegraph had nicked the iNews story within a couple of hours under the headline:

Students ‘should stay on campus over Christmas holidays’, SAGE scientists warn

And then the Mail copied it overnight:

Students could be told to STAY at university over Christmas to avoid spreading coronavirus around the country

But is it true? And where does this all fit in the outer edges of the culture wars?

For a start this isn’t a new story. We looked at the SAGE minutes in question on Friday, and the papers that went to that SAGE meeting earlier in the month (where the graphic we chose for the piece definitely had a Christmassy feel).

Even the Sun on Sunday looked at the SAGE minutes before iNews.

What’s happened here is that it’s Freshers week in a lot of places, there’s a number of outbreaks centred around universities, and Boris said that thing again the other day about students not being sent home.

The quote from the minutes that all of these stories hangs off is this one:

SAGE noted that risks of larger outbreaks spilling over from HE institutions are more likely to occur towards the end of the academic term, coinciding with the Christmas and New Year period when students return home. This could pose risk to both local communities and families, and will require national oversight, monitoring and decision-making.

You’ll see that doesn’t say that SAGE is recommending keeping students at university over Christmas.

What’s then happened is that iNews has cut and shut that minute with a quote from HEPI’s Nick Hillman:

Ministers will have to tell students that it’s best you stay away from home this year. It is no different from any other situation. If you are following the science then what else can the Government say?”

The worry will be if they do go home that they will bring the virus back to their parents and families. It is just another on the long list of sacrifices people will have to make to battle this disease.”

The story continues:

He added that universities will have to prepare for having a significantly greater proportion of their students on campus on Christmas Day, and suggested institutions should try to keep campus venues open to avoid students mixing with older people in local pubs.

And the rest is history.

For the avoidance of doubt, as we pointed out back on 4th September when we first looked at the paper on the “Christmas risk”, SAGE is not saying students should have to spend Christmas “at university”. It was essentially saying three things:

  • That low rates of infection in the community would mean there’s not much of an issue at the start of term
  • That universities could become amplifiers of infection throughout the term if mitigations aren’t implemented
  • Then at the end of term students’ return to communities poses requires national oversight, monitoring and decision making

As we’ve said before, there’s a bunch of problems with the SAGE analysis. Infection in the community, particularly amongst the young (and “affluent”) probably aren’t as low as SAGE thought they might be before a bunch of students “moved away”.

As we keep saying, SAGE seems to regard students as “Harry Potter”, ignoring commuters and those who live away but in the same region and who go home each weekend.

And it doesn’t look like the modelling SAGE had when it considered that paper had factored in several things we know now – like curfews (indeed, the SAGE behavioural modelling group hasn’t been asked to look at curfews at all).

This all appears to make the “end of term” a bit of a red herring. It becomes more interesting in the context of “household visit rules” – but that’s an issue today as much as it is in December. There’s more detail on the confusion there in another post.

The reason this stuff matters is that it gives fuel to the culture warriors desperate to argue that scientists should “leave our lives alone”. We need better science, not no science at all.

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