A MEMBER of staff at Oxford University has raised alarm about a possible spike in coronavirus cases if students keep returning to the city despite the current lockdown.

After the third lockdown began on January 3, the University of Oxford and Oxford Brookes University had to make drastic changes to plans to allow students to return to the city, as they had jointly laid out in December.

Once the Prime Minister issued a stay-at-home order, the universities said they would ‘deliver learning online for most students until at least mid-February’ with the majority of students ‘asked not to return to Oxford’ for now, according to an official statement.

But a who wished to remain anonymous said there was concern among staff that not enough consideration had been made for the highly-infectious new mutant strain of coronavirus which had now become dominant in the UK.

They said: "What worries me is that none of those above me have mentioned the possible impacts of the new strain and it seems we are just expected to carry on as last term with just fewer numbers of students."

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The staff member was also worried about the potential for returning students to break lockdown rules.

They added: "We rely on the students behaving themselves which last year many didn’t."

The University of Oxford’s Hilary term started this Monday, January 11, with most students learning online.

Martin Williams, pro-vice-chancellor for education, said: “We have been planning for scenarios such as this for several months, and remain confident that we can continue to support our students, and protect the health of our wider community in the weeks ahead.”

Oxford Brookes University’s new semester will start on January 25, with remote teaching for the majority of students, except for those on specific courses.

Face-to-face teaching for most courses at Brookes will not begin until February 14 at the earliest.

Professor Anne-Marie Kilday, pro vice-chancellor student and staff experience at Brookes, said: “Our first priority is the health of our students, staff and the wider community in Oxford. This is a challenging time and we all have a part to play in slowing the spread of the virus.”

Oxford Mail: Testing Centre Entrance at Oxford Brookes University Testing Centre Entrance at Oxford Brookes University

A walk-in coronavirus test centre has been provided at Oxford Brookes University's Headington Campus

At both universities, it is only those studying courses which require lab work, or which relate to medicine, health, education and social work, who are currently allowed to return to university-owned accommodation.

Exceptions are also being made for students do not have 'suitable study space' where they currently live, or for mental health reasons.

Students who do return will be asked to take tests for Covid-19 to minimise the risk of transmission.

Both universities have said in-person teaching will be Covid secure.

However, the universities also have significant numbers of students who live in private rented accommodation, who despite being told not to return by their tutors, might not be prevented from doing so by landlords.

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It is unclear what the universities can do to discourage these students from returning to their private rented houses and flats, and neither responded to questioning on that subject when asked.

Both organisations have made commitments to to reimburse students for university-owned accommodation they can no longer use.

At Brookes, students not living in their accommodation for the lockdown period are being given a 50 per cent rent rebate, while at Oxford University the picture is more complex, with different colleges taking different decisions on how to offer a discount to students.

As the 2020 autumn semester began – or Michaelmas Term as it is known at Oxford University – there were assurances from both universities that they were doing their utmost to prevent the spread of Covid.

This included holding most lectures online apart from small group seminars, and providing PPE and testing facilities.

But when Brookes students returned, there were large parties, including a gathering of hundreds outside the Cheney Student Village accommodation, and infection rates among the student population began to rise.

Oxford Mail: Oxford Brookes student parties spreading coronavirus Oxford Brookes student parties spreading coronavirus

A video still of students partying at Cheney Student Village in September 2020

A town hall meeting with worried Oxonians followed, with staff at the two universities saying that Covid safe activities were being encouraged, and those who disobeyed the rules were being punished.

Council chiefs thanked the universities for their work ahead of the new term.

Susan Brown, leader of Oxford City Council, said: “The universities are at the heart of this city, I want to thank them for moving so fast to ensure the safety of staff, students and residents in this latest lockdown.

“They have been thorough and proactive at managing the risk throughout this pandemic, I wish them and their students a safe and productive term through lockdown.”

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Ansaf Azhar, director for public health in Oxfordshire, said: “We have worked in strong partnership with our colleagues at Oxford’s universities throughout the pandemic and this continues as we enter the new lockdown period.

“We have been kept fully briefed of all key decisions.

“The universities are such a huge part of Oxford’s day to day life and our collective efforts in managing the local impacts of the pandemic will continue throughout the difficult weeks ahead and beyond as we deal with further developments throughout 2021.”

The Department for Education provides guidance to universities on how to manage the return of students –but this has not yet been publicly updated to reflect the current lockdown.