Coronavirus: 'Follow the rules if you want students home for Christmas', says culture secretary

27 September 2020, 09:53 | Updated: 27 September 2020, 14:30

University students will be able to return home to their families for Christmas if the public sticks to the new COVID-19 restrictions and helps bring the virus under control, the culture secretary has told Sky News.

Appearing on Sophy Ridge On Sunday, Oliver Dowden said: "I want students to be able to go home for Christmas and if we all pull together and observe these new rules, we follow the guidance, then we should be able to get to a point where that should be possible."

He accused Labour of playing party politics following a letter sent by the shadow education secretary calling for action to be taken on the impact of coronavirus outbreaks among students who returned to universities this month.

"I don't think it's helpful at this stage three months away to speculate," said the cabinet minister.

"We have announced a range of measures. We are constantly keeping this situation under review, taking the necessary measures to keep the virus under control.

"All of that is designed to ensure that we keep the virus under control in a way that will enable people to continue to live their lives as normally as possible in this situation."

Mr Dowden added: "The thing we should be focusing on now is ensuring that we actually take these measures and abide by them."

Sky's political correspondent Rob Powell said Mr Dowden's comments were "hardly a cast iron guarantee that many students will want to hear".

Labour's Kate Green has written to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson calling for "urgent clarity and reassurance" on the matter.

The party wants to see testing provision put in place to ensure students can be home over the festive period.

It comes after 1,700 students at Manchester Metropolitan University were told to stay in their rooms for two weeks after 127 tested positive for the coronavirus.

Across the UK, at least 32 universities have confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 510 cases have been identified among students and staff since campuses reopened, according to data collected by Sky News up to 25 September.

Shadow culture secretary Jo Stevens told Sophy Ridge On Sunday: "We have to put safety and public health first obviously, but we have said, Labour has said, we think that students should be allowed home at Christmas, and to enable them to do that we need an effective test, trace and isolate system in place."

It is not just Labour that has demanded more action.

Conservative MP Robert Halfon, who chairs the education select committee, has also called on ministers to reassure parents on the matter.

He told Sky News on Saturday: "We need a clear testing system for universities. Across schools, universities and colleges, testing should have been one of the priority areas... the government has got to sort it out."

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"We also need to get guidance about online learning and also whether consideration should be given that students will get a discount if they don't have significant face-to-face tuition or interaction with their lecturers over the coming months."

MP Amanda Milling, co-chair of the Conservative Party, said there are no plans to keep students at university over Christmas and accused Labour of "deliberately creating unnecessary stress for young people to score political points".

Alex Norris MP, Labour's shadow minister for public health, responded: "The government is yet again sowing the seeds of chaos and incompetence - denying plans to keep students at university over Christmas at the same time the culture secretary was refusing to rule it out".

"Gavin Williamson must come to parliament and explain the situation and the government must set out its winter strategy for controlling the virus," he added.