Labour’s Kate Green has told Gavin Williamson to “get a grip” and do more to stop further Covid outbreaks at universities after he failed to announce changes to face-to-face teaching or testing infrastructure today.
The Education Secretary used a Commons speech this afternoon to introduce a mandatory end-of-term self-isolation period for students, which is designed to allow them to return home and join their families for Christmas.
Williamson also said his department had asked universities to provide more mental health support. Labour had asked which measures were being put in place, particularly to help those students being required to self-isolate.
But Williamson reiterated the government’s plans to keep in place tiered face-to-face teaching for most students and offered no extra testing infrastructure or funding for universities, many of which have faced Covid outbreaks in recent weeks.
Kate Green, Labour’s education spokesperson, told the Commons: “He’s right that some courses need face-to-face teaching, but has he considered supporting universities to move all teaching online where this is possible, at least for this first term?
“For weeks now, Labour has warned the government that they must get a grip on testing and tracing if we want to reduce the spread of the virus, and their failure to do so lies at the root of this situation and sorting it out must be the government’s top priority.”
Stressing the need for government intervention, she added: “The Secretary of State said he asked universities to provide additional help, but beyond asking what will his department be doing to help them?
“I’m glad he’s listened to Labour and has finally given a straight answer on uniting students and their families over Christmas but can I ask why it took several days and repeated contradictions from his ministerial colleagues to do so?”
Green concluded: “The crisis now facing our universities was predictable and was predicted. Today the Secretary of State failed to outline a plan to get testing fit for purpose, failed to commit that every student who needs access to remote learning will get it and has no plan to ensure the future of our universities.
“If he doesn’t get a grip, the situation we’ve seen in recent days could repeat itself across the country… and the Secretary of State will once again have let young people down as a result of his incompetence.”
Labour accused Williamson this morning of pulling an “‘Invisible Man’ act” on universities after failing to make any statements on universities before today’s statement, despite many complaints as students were locked into their accommodation.
Reacting to Williamson’s statement, the University and College Union (UCU) said he was “clearly wrong” to say universities were well prepared for Covid and called on the government to “halt in-person teaching”.
Their concerns were reflected by several Labour backbenchers, including Richard Burgon who accused the government of putting safety at risk because “it fears online teaching could lead to demands for fee or rent refunds”.
Green urged the Education Secretary in a letter sent over the weekend to at least delay the start of some university terms this year until mass testing has become available to all students on campuses and safety can be guaranteed.
The latest intervention by Green follows reports that thousands of students have been banned from leaving their flats, in some cases with private security stationed outside their accommodation and with some running out of essential items.