Abby Wallace, The Gown Features Editor & Peter Donnelly, Editor
Queen’s University launched an on-campus asymptomatic testing pilot programme, which on Monday 23rd November. This initiative comes at a crucial point in term, in that it will provide students who have remained on campus throughout the semester and who show no symptoms of the virus, with the reassurance of a negative test before they return home for Christmas. Testing will take place in the Whitla Hall and will be available from Sunday-Thursday from 11am-8pm.
Labelled by NI Health Minister Robin Swann as a “game changer,” Queen’s University is the first hub in Northern Ireland and the third UK university to participate in the Government-endorsed asymptomatic New Testing Interventions (NTIs) programme. The University, in co-ordination with the Department for Health, aims to undertake 6,000 tests per week. Queen’s said:
All students are being invited to participate in the programme from this week with those intending to return home for Christmas particularly encouraged to take the test.
Queen’s have expressed an intention to build up testing capacity gradually, expecting to conduct and process 6,000 tests per week between now and the end of December, with 1500 tests in the first week. With students hoping to travel home as the end of term approaches, it is now that testing will be in greatest demand, with 400 students already booking a test.
The tests will be delivered using lateral flow devices, which have recently been approved for screening by a process of detecting antigens. While this test is equally as effective as the PCR test used more commonly by the NHS, for international students, this new initiative might not be sufficient. Depending on where these students are travelling home to, most will be required to present a negative PCR test.
In the majority of cases, these students – the same students who were reassured of face-to-face commitment at the start of the semester – can face the extra burden of paying a minimum of £195 for a test that will allow them to return home. While this test is not being offered at Queen’s, the university has advised these students of a number of private clinics where these PCR tests can be carried out and is working to financially support students who require additional tests before they can travel.
While the testing scheme comes in time to provide much-needed support and reassurance for students who are beginning to think about travelling home, it comes late in a semester in which teaching has already been somewhat compromised. With the suspension of face-to-face teaching before mid-term, perhaps the same testing initiative could have pacified a growing spat of outbreaks earlier on in the semester.
Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stuart Elborn, appeared on Queen’s Radio, ‘The Scoop’ presenter, Thomas Copeland, on Sunday evening to discuss the new testing initiative, as well as the university’s approach to Covid-19 and the continued uncertainty surrounding face-to-face teaching for next year.
“Queen’s was in the bottom 25%. The way we have been able to flex up this contact tracing process over a couple of weeks has got us in a good place now where we can test people who have tested positive and trace their contacts.”Prof. Elborne, The Scoop, Queen’s Radio, 22/11/2020
On the lack of the same testing capacities that could have helped contain the spread of the virus especially within Queen’s accommodation last term, Professor Elborn reflected, “The volumes were challenging, and we somewhat underestimated the number of students who might become positive over a very short period of time. There was a system in place, but we have had to then agilely flex up the capacity within that. Compared to other universities, the number of people who tested positive was relatively small. Queen’s was in the bottom 25%. The way we have been able to flex up this contact tracing process over a couple of weeks has got us in a good place now where we can test people who have tested positive and trace their contacts.”
You can hear the interview in its entirety on ‘The Scoop‘ podcast.
With testing set to continue next term, students can be reassured that the potential for outbreaks of the virus on the same scale as this term will be somewhat nullified through greater “outbreak management”. Despite this, Queen’s has still not been able to provide clarity to students as to how teaching will be delivered next term and cannot determine when the situation might be more transparent.
The University has also taken a shift in its directive approach. After offering direction from the upper echelons of university management that face-to-face teaching would go ahead at the beginning of the semester, it now seems that the university will exercise greater reliance on the composite schools to determine what form of teaching will be delivered for its students. Professor Elborn admitted the university did not want to “overpromise” as how the situation will be in January remains unclear, and that so far, the plan is to “start where we are at the moment” before being able to “incrementally move this up.”
The advancement of QUB’s approach to tackling Covid-19 will no doubt provide a stronger foundation for controlling the virus next term and will provide reassurance to students that next term will not be as disruptive. However, the lack of clarity on teaching arrangements, especially for students with travel and rent commitments, continues to complicate the situation.
Covid Christmas Restrictions
Elsewhere from midnight on Friday 27th November 2020, Northern Ireland will witness its most stringent Covid-19 restrictions since the first lockdown in March, with all non-essential retail business and hospitality premises forced to close.
On Tuesday, 24th November, it was announced that all four UK nations agreed a four day window from 23rd to 27th December to up to three households to mix for Christmas.