University of Portsmouth vice-chancellor slams government over 'absurd' pre-Christmas quarantine plan

THE city’s university vice-chancellor has slammed the government’s proposal to quarantine students before they return home for Christmas as ‘ridiculous’ and ‘absurd’.

Tuesday, 27th October 2020, 3:43 pm
Updated Tuesday, 27th October 2020, 5:28 pm

The Guardian recently reported ministers want to place universities in England into lockdown for two weeks before Christmas, with students told to remain on campus and all teaching carried out online.

The government believe the plan would ensure students are Covid free before returning home to their families over Christmas.

However, University of Portsmouth vice chancellor professor Graham Galbraith said: ‘I have never heard of a more ridiculous and absurd proposal in all my life. I’m totally against this idea.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Covid mitigation measures such as temperature sensors has cost the University of Portsmouth around £10m. Picture: Habibur Rahman

‘The fact such a proposal has never been discussed, mentioned or floated with university bodies is really depressing.’

Professor Galbraith believes as well as disrupting students’ education the plan would only serve to potentially increase infection rates.

He said: ‘I’m sure people can recall when they took this approach with the cruise industry at the start of the pandemic - all it did was ensure everyone on board became infected.

Read More

Read More
How Portsmouth’s coronavirus infection rate compares to the rest of Hampshire
University of Portsmouth vice-chancellor, professor Graham Galbraith, has slammed the government over a proposed plan to make students quarantine before returning home for Christmas. Picture: Habibur Rahman

‘It really does disappoint me when I see ill-thought-out ideas coming from the government because it simply causes a reaction and a furore and a whole lot of energy that could be better put into doing things that make difference.’

Professor Galbraith believes that ‘energy’ would be better spent improving the much criticised test, track and trace system to identify if students have or have had Covid to ascertain whether they are safe to travel home.

He added: ‘What I do think we need is to do something about testing and tracing to ensure students are not carrying infection which would allow students to go home safely. Even better, if the government can do an antibody check to see if they’ve had the virus. This would allow a student to not just go home and to see their grandmother but to give her a hug as they would know they’re not infectious.’

The university’s chief was also critical of the current reported quarantine date of December 8 to 22.

Covid mitigation measures such as hand sanitiser points for students has cost the University of Portsmouth around £10m. Picture: Habibur Rahman

Prefessor Galbraith said: ‘They’ve chosen a term end date which coincides with Oxbridge – they don’t seem to know other universities have different end dates. It also misses the point that a significant number of our students don’t go home for Christmas so why should their education be blighted with two weeks taken off their teaching time.’

While the plan is yet to be finalised, the prime minister Boris Johnson had previously spoke of his desire to ensure students could return home.

He said: ‘I can assure everybody at university that there are plans to get students home safely for Christmas.’

While the university has introduced a wide range of strategies to mitigate the risk of infection there has been a steady increase in Covid cases which currently stands at ‘around 120 students’.

The University of Portsmouth is to expand its asymptomatic testing to include halls of residence. Picture: Habibur Rahman

A significant number of theses cases have been identified by the university’s own asymptomatic testing centre.

University announces ‘spot check testing’ to limit Covid spread

The city’s university has announced it will next month introduce the ‘spot check testing’ of asymptomatic students living in halls of residence.

While the university of Portsmouth was one of the first in the country to launch its own testing centre, tests have been carried out on a voluntary basis which led to concerns over limitations in revealing the extent of where there may be a concentration of cases.

To try and control the spread of the virus, designated testers will be deployed to halls of residence entrances where students will be randomly asked to take a Covid test.

University vice-chancellor, Professor Graham Galbraith said: ‘There has been concerns raised about the transfer of the virus in student halls and so we intend to randomly test individuals to identify where it may have spread and to ensure these people isolate.

‘This is another way of keeping on top of the virus. People may not have symptoms for five or six days and during this period they may meet several groups of six people. You don’t have to be a mathematician to see how quickly the virus could spread.’

Tests will particularly focus on halls of residence where cases may already have been identified.

Prof Galbraith said: ‘Students are living in flat bubbles of six and if there’s a case in one of these flats then it’s logical to test at least a couple of people from each of the flats. If one person in a subsequent flat tests positive then the whole flat will have to isolate.’

It’s all part of the university’s target to test 10 per cent of the population every two weeks.

However due to the cost and increasing time delay of turning around the current government endorsed PCR test the university is looking to introduce its own antigen and saliva test.

Prof Galbraith said: ‘These are cheaper and quicker options. It’s a balance of a test that may be 100 per cent accurate, but takes time to return a result, or a test which is 98 per cent accurate and has a much quicker turn around time.’

While tests cannot be made compulsory, Prof Galbraith is confident most students will want to comply and has said he would impose sanctions if a student was compromising the health and safety of the rest of the university population.

Cost of Covid estimated to be around £30m

The university’s vice-chancellor has said the impact of Covid will result in the institution’s worst ever financial year.

Professor Graham Galbraith said: ‘I am worried about the finances. There’s no doubt this will be a pretty horrific year financially – the worst since the university was founded.’

The current estimate suggests a working £30m deficit which has been the result of a range of methods put in place to mitigate the risk of Covid infection as well as the loss of fees from international students unable to take up places.

Prof Galbraith added: ‘The modifications to buildings, testing centre, masks and sanitisers – all of which need to be replaced – has cost close to £10m. Students are our main source of income and we’ve also lost a lot of international students who’ve not been able to take up places due quarantine and restrictions in their own countries.

‘Some of these students are currently accessing courses remotely and hope to arrive in the new year. Our current estimated operating deficit is around £30m but this could increase or decrease depending on what happens after Christmas.’

Despite the massive economic impact of the pandemic, university leaders are confident they can absorb the loss.

Prof Galbraith said: ‘In terms of a cash deficit we are able to deal with this loss this year but this would obviously become more of a concern if the current situation extends beyond.’

Police praise student conduct but warn of future fines

Hampshire police have praised students for their ‘responsible conduct’ since returning to the University of Portsmouth but have warned officers are starting to ‘shift their priorities’ to reduce the spread of Covid and will deal with any breaches of rules ‘robustly’.

Insp Marcus Kennedy said: ‘I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how the majority of people, including students, are adhering to regulations.

‘It has genuinely been a case of so far so good. The vast majority of students are engaging with officers and listening to what’s required and I’m really pleased with that.’

Insp Kennedy’s statement came in the same week police were called to break up a party of more than 50 people at at Margaret Rule Halls, in Isambard Brunel Road. At the end of September police officers also had to intervene after hundreds of young people were pictured queuing to get in Astoria nightclub.

He added: ‘It’s always the five per cent who spoil it for everyone else. It’s the same in all walks of life, including students.’

However Insp Kennedy warned officers were being directed to get tough with any future breaches of Covid guidelines by both students and the wider public.

He said: ‘While we have to balance the risks of all potential crimes with officer deployment we now need to shift our priorities towards dealing robustly with breaches of government regulations. If we attend house parties we will be issuing fines. Our priority is to reduce the spread of the infection.’

Insp Kennedy warned officers will be moving ‘more quickly’ towards the ‘enforcement’ stage of the four E’s which also includes engagement, encouragement and explanation.

While the University of Portsmouth’s vice-chancellor, Graham Galbraith, was keen highlight the responsible conduct of the vast majority of the city’s students he also vowed to ‘throw all our disciplinary procedures against students who break the rules’.

He added: ‘The vast majority of our students have been incredibly respectful and responsible but there are always going to be exceptions. We can’t do what the police do and enforce fines but we can exert pressure on student’s behaviour if it is reported as not acceptable.’

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

The News is more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription to support our journalism.

You can subscribe here for unlimited access to Portsmouth news online - as well as our new Puzzles section.