According to Jo Grady of the University and College Union, universities risk becoming the ‘care homes of the second wave’ unless students defy the government’s attempt to get them back in face-to-face education. She went on to claim that a return to campus ‘risks doing untold damage to people's health and exacerbating the worst public health crisis of our lifetimes’ and could lead to a ‘silent avalanche of infections’.
Are these fears justified, or are they an attempt by the union to get its members out of having to do any work (while presumably collecting their salaries)? Any large number of people getting together and mixing from across the country risks some spreading of an infectious disease. But what made care homes especially lethal places in the early stages of the Covid-19 outbreak was not that care home residents were especially likely to catch the disease – we have no good data on this because there was a lack of testing both inside and outside care homes – but that they were particularly vulnerable to dying from the disease if they did catch it. The difference in mortality rates between the elderly and the young is remarkable: among the under 65s, 5.0 per 100,000 people were killed by the virus between March and June; for 80 to 84-year-olds it was 387, rising to 720 for 85 to 89-year-olds and 1,456 for the over 90s.
Analysis by the University of Liverpool, published in the British Medical Journal this week, also revealed that there were only six deaths among under 19s in the 260 hospitals they studied – not one of which was without a serious pre-existing condition. Therefore, the idea that an outbreak of Covid-19 in universities could cause anything like the number of deaths that occurred in care homes is preposterous.
Students are likely to be more at risk of meningitis, or Invasive Meningococcal Disease (IMD) – the risk of which has a second peak among the 15-19 age group and is especially associated with students travelling to new towns to attend university for the first time. In 2014/15 there were 49 cases of IMD on campuses, leading to four deaths. There is a vaccine called MenACWY, which provides some protection, but only 36 per cent of 18-years-olds took it up in 2015.