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“Vice-Chancellors Are Wrong To Continue With In-Person Teaching,” Says Independent SAGE Expert.

The Independent SAGE panel on the publicly live-streamed Zoom meeting.
Kit Sinclair and Aidan Hall

As the University of Nottingham’s rampant increases in daily COVID-19 cases looked as though they were slowing, Impact’s News team were invited to attend Independent SAGE’s weekly online briefing where they were told by an expert on the panel that “Vice-Chancellors are wrong to continue with in-person teaching”.

Independent SAGE is a group of scientists who are working together to provide independent scientific advice to the government and public on how to minimise deaths and support Britain’s recovery from the COVID-19 crisis.

During the briefing, the panel of experts and academics reviewed the most up-to-date COVID-19 statistics and gave a brief outline of their recommended policy plan.

Concurring with Keir Starmer’s calls earlier this week for a nationwide “circuit-breaker”, indie-SAGE are urgently recommending at least a two week return to late-May style restrictions across the country. 

This would involve the closure of schools (to coincide with the existing half term break), reinstating 2m distancing in all settings and moving all university teaching online. Professor Christina Pagel, who delivered the proposal, underlined the need for the majority of office workers to return to working from home.

Independent SAGEs emergency six week plan for England.

 

The goal of the plan is to reduce the R rate to a level of around 0.6 to 0.7, at which point they recommend a staggered reopening of schools and retail, with secondary school pupils wearing face coverings in the classroom.

Most important, emphasised multiple scientists at the briefing, is the need to completely overhaul the current Test, Trace and Isolate system, which Professor Gabriel Scally described as “the one thing we know isn’t working in the whole system”. 

When asked by Impact if it is fair, given the COVID-secure nature of in-person teaching, to criticise the University of Nottingham for not halting in-person teaching, Professor Deenan Pillay, Professor of Virology at UCL, said “it is clearly very difficult for universities to come up with the right answer”. 

University chancellors are “effectively in the same position as pub owners”

It is important to consider, the Professor cautioned, that along with face-to-face teaching comes other risks such as walking through university buildings as well as the presence of non-academic staff who are subsequently put at higher risk. 

Stephen Reicher, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of St Andrews, commented that university chancellors are “effectively in the same position as pub owners”.

The professor went on to explain that because universities fear they will lose students, and thus money, if they stop in-person teaching, they are having to keep in-person teaching despite the public health risk. 

“Vice-Chancellor’s are wrong,” he continued, “to continue with in-person teaching”. 

“But,” he went on, “they need the support so they can make things safe… in exactly the same way that if we put restrictions on pubs, the government has got to support those businesses and those workers”.

It is clear that the scientific consensus may be diverging from government actions.

Impact also questioned the scientists over the potential ramifications for local communities that contain a high student population – according to data released by the university, there are almost 200 more cases in the last 10 days amongst students living in private accommodation compared to those living in halls.

Zubaida Haque says that this only underlines why we need a “short, sharp circuit breaker”. Speaking of the risk posed to elderly or otherwise vulnerable residents – both those living in majority student areas and across the country – she says that “the government have stopped talking about the vulnerable”. 

It is clear that the scientific consensus may be rapidly diverging from government actions. But what changes to current restrictions Nottingham will see implemented, if any, remain to be seen.

Kit Sinclair and Aidan Hall

Feature image of the SAGE online conferece courtesy of Aidan Hall.

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