The Government needs to be able to reserve the right to “hit the brakes” on students returning to campuses in coming weeks, a leading scientist has said.

Dr Mike Tildesley, reader in mathematics at the University of Warwick and member of the SPI-M advisory group, said there needs to be an “opportunity to respond” if there is high prevalence of the virus.

He said that the return of some students over the next month should be done “in terms of need for students to be back”.

The comments come as a new study suggests that students need to be tested every three days for Covid-19 to prevent major outbreaks at university campuses.

“We would always emphasise the need to be cautious with any form of reopening so the return of some students over the next month, I think really needs to be done in terms of need for students to be back,” the associate professor told a briefing for journalists.

“And I think it’s really important to be aware of the background situation – the prevalence is key, and I think it’s really important that we have the opportunity to respond.

“So if we do see that there is a rise in incidence as reopening happens – whether this be students returning to campuses or any other form of reopening – we need to be prepared to hit the brakes, as it were.

“I think a cautious approach has to be the way forward at this point in time – this is not just universities, this is generally.

“We do know that obviously things have been coming down for some time, cases, hospital occupancy, and deaths have been coming down, but we’re in a very critical phase here.

“We still have very pretty high numbers, we have pretty high hospital occupancy and we need to really ease our way out of lockdown.

“I think we need to be pretty cautious in the weeks to come when it comes to reopening – which includes students returning to campus.”

A sign in the window of student accommodation at a university
A sign in the window of student accommodation at a university (PA)

The comments come as a new study examined the effect of students returning to campuses.

Scientists analysed the spread of Covid-19 on university campuses during the autumn term of 2020.

There were multiple outbreaks when students returned to university campuses, but the authors said the scale of the outbreaks varied “considerably”.

They wanted to determine whether there was evidence that outbreaks in university settings led to outbreaks in the community.

They also carried out modelling on the effect of staggered returns of students to universities and the impact of asymptomatic testing, both on return and during term time.

They found that larger halls of residence posed higher risks for larger attack rates, and this was not mitigated by segmentation into smaller households.

But they found that even larger outbreaks at universities “do not give any detectable signal of spill over to the local population”.

However, some level of cases do trickle into the local communities, they added.

Covid test sign
A study said frequent testing, and self-isolation, are likely to be important for reducing transmission during term time (PA)

The authors also modelled some of the proposed measures to keep universities open during the pandemic.

They said staggering the return of students at the start of term is expected to have “limited value”.

But frequent testing, and self-isolation, “are likely to be much more important for reducing transmission during term time”, they said.

They suggested that all students would need to be tested every three days to prevent a major outbreak.

“We explored asymptomatic testing strategies in the context of a more transmissible variant, as currently dominant in the UK, and found that extremely frequent testing – all students every three days – would be necessary to prevent a major outbreak,” the authors wrote.

Their study, which has been published as a pre-print and has not yet gone through peer-review or published in a journal, was posted online as part of the documents considered by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies papers.

The Government is working with universities to offer twice weekly testing to all students currently eligible to attend.