University bosses outline Covid safety plans ahead of Freshers Week as students return to Newcastle

University bosses in Newcastle have outlined their plans to safely manage the return of tens of thousands students to the city.

With Freshers Week about to kick off, education chiefs in the city will be hoping to avoid the kind of major outbreaks that saw thousands of Newcastle and Northumbria students contract Covid at the start of term this time last year.

Newcastle University vice-chancellor Prof Chris Day said this week that students will be encouraged to stay on campus more during Freshers, rather than going into the busiest parts of the city centre, and that he was confident that the overwhelming majority will arrive vaccinated.

He told the City Futures Board on Wednesday: “In light of concerns over Covid-19 and how busy the city centre has become since rules were relaxed, we are holding more activities on our campus including on-site food trucks, bars, beach pits, event spaces.

“All students are being reminded of the dangers related to alcohol, drugs, sexual violence, e-scooters, unofficial taxis, and we are promoting very heavily the behaviours we expect.

“In terms of teaching, for most students that will begin a few days later on the 27th and unless the Government changes its guidance we will be teaching with a combination of in-person and online methods.

“After last year when most of our teaching had to be online, both of us [Newcastle and Northumbria universities] are trying to return to as much on-campus, face-to-face for the students as we can. Although it is important to point out that we, like many in the sector, believe that there were a lot of positive lessons that came out of our switch to online learning.

“If you hear stories about students getting some of their teaching online, that is not necessarily a bad thing and we will stick with that where we think it delivers a better experience in some form or other.”

Prof Day added that, while there will be no social distancing enforced on campus, both of the city’s universities are “strongly encouraging” the wearing of face masks – and would expect staff and students to have face coverings on for indoor teaching or research sessions.

All students are also being asked to take lateral flow tests twice a week and encouraged to get fully vaccinated against Covid-19.

Prof Day and his Northumbria counterpart, Prof Andrew Wathey, both expressed hopes that a very high percentage of students would arrive in Newcastle having already had at least one jab.

The board, made up of leaders from the city council and other major public bodies, was told that around 72% of 18 to 24-year-olds in the country had received a first dose so far, but that studies from universities had shown that vaccine uptake among their students was far higher – above 90%. Prof Day said there was a “very clear pattern that students are more likely to have had the vaccine that others in that age group”, though neither Newcastle institution had yet completed its own survey.

Prof Wathey added that the universities’ policies would be determined by changing public health guidance over the coming months and also defended the use of online teaching.

He said: “We are doing as much as we possibly can in-person but it is worth double underlining that we were already moving, in some respects, towards online teaching before the Covid pandemic struck.”