University students in Wales will not be forced to take new rapid coronavirus tests before returning home for Christmas, the Welsh Education Minister has said.
Kirsty Williams said students would instead be offered the chance to “make a positive choice” in taking up the offer of a test 24 hours before they plan to leave Welsh towns and cities.
Under the plan, Welsh universities will end the majority of in-person lessons in the week leading up to December 8, allowing time for students who test positive to quarantine and be home for Christmas Eve.
Students will also be asked to minimise their social contact with others in the run up to the end of term and offered the use of the new lateral flow test from their university if they plan on travelling home.
But one university has said it would be impossible to test every student before the end of term, while the National Union of Students (NUS) Wales called for rebates for students who are being told to leave for home before December 9.
On Wednesday, Ms Williams said she encouraged students to sign up for the asymptomatic mass testing pilot – which delivers results in 30 minutes and uses a nose and throat swab – to make returning home “easier”.
But testing before travelling would not be enforced for students who displayed no symptoms of Covid-19.
Ms Williams told the Welsh Government’s press briefing: “Let me be clear, with regards to asymptomatic testing, we can’t force people to take a test.
“We’re providing that availability for them so that they can make a positive choice if they feel that that is right for them. But they will not be forced to take a test.”
Ms Williams said asymptomatic testing would give “added reassurance around returning home and spending time with loved ones at the end of term”.
Students will be asked to follow Welsh Government guidelines, with no-one travelling if they have symptoms, a positive test or if they have been asked to self-isolate by a contact tracer.
Students would also be asked to “stay put” and not return to their families until the first week of December.
Evidence shows transmission were not taking place in teaching and learning environments and universities were seeing a “steady decline” in cases of Covid-19, Ms Williams said.
Mass testing facilities are set to become available at participating universities within the next few weeks.
Swansea University, which will end in-person teaching on December 4, said it hoped to take part and had been told tests would be ready to use as early as November 30.
Andrew Rhodes, the university’s registrar and chief operating officer, said he welcomed the move but warned it would be “impossible” to test every student.
He said: “Asymptotic testing means students have to be tested twice with a three-day gap between the first and second test, so, in practice, in would be impossible to test all students before they travel home given the very tight timescales.
“We will therefore be reminding all students that it is very important they abide by both university and Government Covid regulations in order to keep themselves, their families and the wider community safe.”
NUS Wales said that students should be given refunds for accommodation costs given the guidance that travel should be planned for no later than December 9.
Its president Becky Ricketts said: “Now that it is clear students will be expected to leave term-time accommodation earlier than usual, we believe students who leave within the advised timeframe should receive rebates for the weeks they will not be in their accommodation.”
The Welsh Conservative’s shadow education minister Suzy Davies said: “Students inevitably want to travel home for Christmas and so the announcement made yesterday for English universities was a relief to the students and their parents.
“Consequently, I’m pleased to see that Wales will broadly follow suit and introduce a similar plan here giving similar reassurance to students and their families.”
“Now that tests can clearly be made available at short notice and short turnaround, this looks very promising for the new term.”
Plaid Cymru’s spokesperson for post-16 education Helen Mary Jones said: “Support must also be given to those students who might not be able to go home for Christmas.
“However, Wales needs not just a clear plan for allowing students home for Christmas but also comprehensive guidance on their return to university in the New Year – including ensuring remote and blended learning to ensure their safety.”
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