The official blog of The Social Democratic Party.

Let’s keep our universities open

Policymakers need to ditch their panic on Covid and accept that students should continue to lead normal lives at university.

By: Patrick O'Flynn

SOMETIMES in science the most telling experiments happen by accident rather than by design.

One thinks of the discovery of penicillin by Sir Alexander Fleming after he spotted how mould on a carelessly discarded petri dish had prevented the growth of staphylococci. Or Edward Jenner noticing that milkmaids who had had the non-fatal cowpox did not go on to contract fatal smallpox during epidemics of it.

Well, right now nature has created an almost perfect experiment for us by arranging a Covid outbreak centred around two halls of residence at the University of Glasgow.

As of Wednesday there were 124 confirmed cases, with hundreds more suspected. However the University acknowledged that it was not aware of a single student hospitalised as a result. Of course, as the outbreak goes on it may be that some hospitalisations do occur. Yet this is a notable finding.

To date a major Covid outbreak hitting people solely in the 18-22 age range has not left any of them seriously ill, has put almost no pressure on the local healthcare system and none at all on hospitals.

Even better, by the end of it a large number of people will have acquired at least partial resistance to Covid (re-infections are vanishingly rare to date), helping to build a community immunity that can in due course help to protect people in more vulnerable groups from infection.

We already knew that the disease was much less dangerous for younger age groups, but the Glasgow University outbreak is a dramatic illustration of this. In my view it leads inexorably to a conclusion that policy from UK and devolved Governments towards a large section of young adults is badly misconceived.

Rather than shutting down normal undergraduate life a better path, as far as public health considerations go, would be to encourage students to lead their normal lives and universities to offer the full range of their normal activities. Students largely seclude themselves from the rest of us – and we from them – in any case.

They tend to drink in their own pubs or student union bars and to positively go out of their way to avoid extensive contact with older people.

Obviously, it would be foolish to send a load of undergrads to do voluntary work in care homes, and they would do well to observe the general distancing rules when shopping or on public transport. It would also be sensible of universities to encourage their more elderly or less healthy teaching staff to take sabbaticals and push more keen young postgraduates into face-to-face teaching roles.

But apart from that there would appear to be many more upsides than downsides to undergraduates having a normal university experience and getting Covid – and getting over it – before the onset of winter.

Instead the policy of universities, at the behest of the Government, is to force hundreds of undergraduates into lockdown every time there is an outbreak at their university so that the minimal possible number of them contract the disease. This will simply impede progress towards community immunity and risk future outbreaks taking place smack in the middle of the winter spike in general demand that always hits the NHS.

If the Glasgow episode is a reliable guide to the disease profile among young adults – and there was already a lot of evidence to suggest that it is – then some gentle advice for students to avoid local oldsters and to local oldsters to give students a wide berth for the time being (going with the grain of normal preferences for each group) is pretty much all that we need.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if in future years the University of Glasgow’s Covid outbreak was cited in medical journals as being the key to a breakthrough in Britain’s management of the disease? For that to happen we need our policymakers to ditch their panic and extreme caution and think things through instead.

The SDP has already shown the way ahead on this score. It’s a crying shame that no party with representation in the House of Commons seems capable of doing the same.

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All Comments (5)

  • Can the SDP get a clinical expert to endorse this article so that the UK Parliament will be encouraged to review the approach?

  • In a big fan of Patrick O’Flynn and Rod Liddle. They are a huge reason why I joined the SDP.

    I wrote an article recently about the BBC and its immoral payment collecting operation, but was told it is too “tabloidy” for the party! I thought Brexiteer council estate folk were supposed to be welcomed? A huge mistake UKIP made at their peak, in my opinion, was to ignore them and their ideas. I will remain a member, but felt disappointed by those comments.

    Perhaps a “tabloidy” style SDP page could be formed to attract fellow voters who are politically homeless? Just a thought.

  • I couldn’t agree more! And let and sentient grandparents /other mentally capable vulnerable relationsdecide for themselves if they would like to see their grandchildren at Christmas-or any other time and if so, what measures, if any, they would like them to observe or no hugging, social distancing etc etc
    We are supposed to be caring about the old and vulnerable , but not allowing them access to family, love, physical contact, ministers or religion is uncaring in the extreme to the point of being cruel. Worst thing that could have happened to us is the PM getting a bad case of Covid.-it seems to have dissolved his resolve and and gobbled up any true libertarian instincts he had-… as we march blithely,nay enthusiastically, into totalitarian Big Brotherdom.

  • The Government acts on scientific advice. The problem is, you get the scientific advice you commission. By that I don’t mean the advisers tell the government what they want to hear, but that they only address the remit they’re given. The task is to advise how deaths from CoViD can be minimised, so that is the advice they receive.

    Of course, the task should be different; how in this circumstance can we minimise the harm to the population as a whole, including unnecessary loss of life?

    Given that life is a limited commodity for each and every one of us, loss of life can be measured for a population as person-years. It seems everyone, on the current strategy, is set to lose at least one year of life now, because the restrictions have a serious impact on our ability to live and progress through life as we normally would, so the lockdown will cause the loss of 63 million person-years of life. Remember, those of us who are losing a year of life to the lockdown will never get it back. One day we will all die, having lost a year of opportunity or whatever else life would have thrown at us. We can never get that lost time back; our time is limited and finite. To stop life for a year is to lose a year from our life. That is lost for ever, whether it is our first year, a year from the middle, or our last. 63 million person years are being lost. 32 million person-years have already been taken from us.

    Can this be justified by the life saved? The threat was of up to 500,000 deaths. These would mostly, but not exclusively, be of people who are very sick, many of whom would be in their last year or two of life. So if, for example, CoViD deaths totalling 500,000 were 50% from people who would otherwise have lived for two more years, 30% from people who would have survived a further 10 years, and 20% from people with an expected 40 years left, that would equal 2 x 250,000 + 10 x 150,000 + 40 x 100,000 = 6 million person-years, less than a tenth of the life lost through the lockdown. It is difficult to see how the life saved could ever come near the life lost from the population as a whole.

    The single goal of reducing one single hazard is not an adequate expression of a government’s responsibility to protect a population against serious harm. A more rounded approach is required.

Family, Community, Nation.