Unions warn of ‘enormous’ logistical challenges as Sheffield universities forced to implement mass Covid tests at short notice

Mass coronavirus testing for students wishing to travel home for Christmas will present “enormous” logistical challenges for Sheffield’s two universities, staff unions have said.

Thursday, 26th November 2020, 7:00 am

It is understood that most universities, but not all, in England are taking part in the government's plans to carry out the mass Covid-19 testing of students before the pre-Christmas exodus home.

Both Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Sheffield are among those which have confirmed their partcipation in the scheme – with each set to open their own separate coronavirus testing centres on November 30.

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Sheffield Hallam University is due to open a Covid-19 testing site for students in the Owen Building on November 30

But, unions representing staff at Sheffield Hallam (SHU) said the “last minute” plans by the government have now intensified pressures on the city’s institutions and those that work within them.

In a statement, the joint trades unions from SHU, said: “Given the Government’s track record, we are shocked but not surprised that an important and sensible public health measure – the asymptomatic testing of students to support a safer return home not just for them but for their families and home communities – has been imposed on universities to plan and manage at the last minute, relying on volunteers from a dedicated but underappreciated workforce.

“The end result of these last minute, poorly thought-out and under-resourced initiatives is further significant work intensification for the majority of university staff, who are expected to rearrange planned activities to later in the academic year, straining resources and putting pressure on student support in a constantly changing environment.”

They added: “The logistical challenges are enormous and the risks are significant, and local public health departments could have played an important role had they not suffered a series of drastic cuts since 2013.

The asymptomatic testing centre at Sheffield University's Octagon Centre will be available for students from November 30

"Universities have been put in a position where they have had no choice but to go ahead at short notice, despite the potential risks to staff health and wellbeing.”

The joint unions also called for the government to make plans for the start of the next academic term in January.

“The public health impact of large numbers of young people moving around the country during the pandemic were always predictable,” they said. “They were predictable at the start of term, they were predictable in relation to the Christmas break, and they are predictable in relation to the January return.

"The absence of government guidance on the January return is hampering universities' ability to plan for it and adding to the considerable stress and uncertainty experienced by both staff and students.”

Testing at universities will remain voluntary, with those testing negative expected to leave their term-time addresses within the following 24 hours to cut the risk of infections post-testing.

Students will be allowed to travel home on staggered departure dates set by universities from 3 December to 9 December, under plans announced by the Department for Education (DfE).

Sheffield Hallam University will have a testing centre in the Owen Building, in Hallam Square, while the University of Sheffield has said its testing site will be at The Octagon Centre, just off Glossop Road.

In these confusing and worrying times, local journalism is more vital than ever. Thanks to everyone who helps us ask the questions that matter by taking out a digital subscription or buying a paper. We stand together. Nancy Fielder, editor.