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University testing service reports 61 Covid-19 cases in Freshers’ Week

Oxford University’s testing service has confirmed 61 positive tests for Covid-19 in Freshers’ Week (3-9 October). This brings the total number of positive tests since August 20 to 91. In total, there have been 1631 tests since the introduction of the service by the University.

In August, the University launched its COVID-19 testing service for all staff and students. A whitepaper published by the University states that after a booking is made, “the individual gets a timed appointment and is swabbed by a healthcare worker in the pod.” However, several students have told Cherwell that they had to self-swab when getting tested. One anonymous student said: “The person working there does their best to explain it to you but especially with the nasal swab everyone has a natural reaction not to do the swab properly because it is quite unpleasant.”

While the University’s whitepaper notes that “[testing] may also be conducted via self-swabbing or supervised self-swabbing”, it reports a false negative rate (the probability that a test shows negative when a patient has the virus) “possibly of the order of 20%” due to incorrect technique used for swabbing and low viral load in asymptomatic patients. It is therefore likely that the numbers reported by the University’s testing service are underestimated.

The University’s testing Status and Response website also states that the figures released do not include positive test results received outside of the University testing service. It notes further that “due to the time interval between a test being done and the result becoming available, it is expected that there will be a mismatch between actual results and those confirmed to us on any given day”.

Current University guidance is that students and staff should not get tested unless they have been asked to or they display symptoms of Covid-19. The University’s whitepaper states that “one of the challenges the University faces is staff and students with no COVID-19 symptoms asking for tests unnecessarily”. The University of Cambridge, whose collegiate system mirrors that of Oxford, have set up a testing pod in the city for symptomatic cases, but have recently announced they will test all asymptomatic students in colleges.

The numbers this week follow Oxford Brookes University, which has been back since September, confirming 98 positive tests in the week leading up to October 2. Oxford Brookes University said “the majority” of those cases had been “traced back to social gatherings”. In a statement sent to councillors seen by the BBC, the University said it had issued about 150 fixed penalties to students “for breaches within halls of residences” since 12 September.

This week, several colleges have reported social gatherings of students that violated government and university guidance. St. Catherine’s College recently announced it would introduce body cameras for Junior Deans and porters to wear in order to record criminal behaviour. Several other colleges have cancelled events or closed JCRs.

On Thursday, Balliol College’s JCR committee cancelled events in the JCR during Freshers’ Week. In a post to the JCR’s Facebook group, Balliol’s JCR Vice President said: “It is impossible for us to enforce the regulations as we have been told we have to by certain members of college staff.” On the same day, Keble College’s Decanal team sent an email to all students, reminding them of “the absolute necessity of following the simple rules on social distancing and Covid policy in College”.

An email that was sent out to all Magdalen College students, stressed “just how lenient Magdalen are currently being relative to other colleges,” but also noted that “there is significant pressure from the central University to tighten our regulations, and limit interaction far more”. Magdalen and Brasenose are currently the only colleges to allow guests into College.

The University has implemented a four-stage emergency response, depending on how wide the spread of Covid-19 is. The current status is Stage 2, which allows the University to operate “in line with social distancing restrictions with as full a student cohort as possible on site”, with teaching and assessment taking place “with the optimum combination of in-person teaching and online learning”. A Stage 3 response would imply “no public access to the University or College buildings” and “gatherings for staff and students only permitted where essential for teaching and assessment to take place”.

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