‘Students should go home’ says Bath disease control expert as cases rise

A Bath disease control expert has said that students should go home and learn remotely to slow the rise in coronavirus cases.

Dr Bharat Pankhania, a former consultant in communicable disease control with more than 20 years’ experience in infectious diseases, has said that he has revised is position on students coming back to university and now thinks it would be safer for them to be at home.

He’s also said that cases at the university would inevitably percolate into the wider community, but that he did not expect a local lockdown to be implemented in the south west.

Several universities across the region have seen high numbers of coronavirus cases, Bristol has almost 120 active cases, Exeter has over 200 cases and the University of Bath now has over 100.

Mr Pankhania said: “It was inevitable cases were going to increase when students returned. But now I have revised my position, I think where it is possible, students should be learning remotely and go to their homes.”

There is no official advice for students to return home and Dr Bruce Laurence, Bath and North East Somerset director of Public Health has said he thinks university outbreaks are being well managed.

In a statement about coronavirus in Bath and North East Somerset, he said: “Students are taking their isolation responsibilities very seriously and I believe the risk is being well managed.”

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Disease control expert Dr Pankhania said: “What we need to do is make some decisions on if this is an infection is controlled or is it by some untoward event or just natural growth.

“This rise was expected with the increased movement we were going to see more cases, the pattern was expected.”

He continued to say that having higher cases in university’s would see higher cases being reported in the wider community as “the two are linked”.

Dr Pankhania said: “The two go together, we are not in an exclusive bubble, what happens in one area will eventual percolate into the other, the two are linked. The community will see a rise naturally.”

Dr Pankhania who is a senior clinical lecturer on disease control at The University of Exeter said universities had a “difficult” job when it came to managing outbreaks.

He said: “The unis have two problems which will naturally create difficulties. One is that they are open, the second is that they are full of students.

With all the best will in the world, it is still impossible to manage. They are doing all they can that is why I think generally where possible remote learning should be done and students should go home. I think even school children should learn from home too, but that is my personal opinion.”

Will the South West go into lockdown?

The South West has not yet experienced a local lockdown like those imposed in Wales the North of England or Scotland.

Dr Pankhania said he thought characteristics of the South West may help the region avoid local lockdowns.

He said: “The South West is dominated by lots of open spaces and not many overcrowded cities. I think this parameter will help us avoid local lockdown.

“But the caveat of that needs to be that the only way to keep cases down is to make sure every individual takes responsibility.

“You cannot rely on track and trace but instead need to be proactive.

“If you have symptoms, pull yourself out of society and isolate. Tell the people you have come into contact with yourself, do not rely on track and trace to do that for you.”

Dr Pankhania went onto say that everyone should protect themselves from what they can and go and get a flu jab this winter.

“We need to get everyone vaccinated against what they can be protected from.”

The Department for Education directs universities on the coronavirus pandemic.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We understand this has been a very difficult time for students, which is why we prioritised their education and wellbeing so young people’s lives are not put on hold. We have supported universities to provide a blend of online and in-person learning in a Covid-secure way this term.

“Universities are prepared for local outbreaks, and we have worked with them to help draw up plans for measures in the event of positive cases on campus, or a rise in cases locally.

“The Government has published guidance for universities informed by the latest advice from SAGE. Universities are working closely with local authorities to monitor cases and make judgements on the balance of teaching online and in-person, based on the latest data and their position on the tiered system.”

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