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Thousands of students are preparing to return to university after the coronavirus lockdown

Universities should switch to full online learning only as a last resort in the event of a local coronavirus outbreak, new guidance says.

The hundreds of thousands of students due to arrive at England’s universities in the coming weeks also face a ban on house parties under the “rule of six”.

Students will limit socialising, staying within separate “households”, and be taught in managed groups.

The guidance notes the outbreak risk the mass arrival of students creates.

The academics’ union, UCU, said it would be safer to switch most teaching online this term and allow students to return only when virus levels were lower.

But the Department for Education guidance reiterates the current position that courses will be provided using a blend of face-to-face and online learning, unless an outbreak occurs locally.

Where social distancing cannot be maintained, teaching sessions will be via technology or moved to more spacious premises.

Campuses have been closed since March and the government scientific advisory group Sage suggests the university return “could amplify local and national transmission”.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “Many university students are in the age bracket where we have seen the infection rates rise recently.

“My message to students is simple, ‘Please, for the sake of your education and your parents’ and your grandparents’ health, wash your hands, cover your face, make space, and don’t socially gather in groups of more than six, now and when term starts.”

He added the updated guidance for universities on “how they can operate in a Covid-secure way” included a “clear request not to send students home in the event of an outbreak, so as to avoid spreading the virus across the country”.

The guidance comes as Exeter University has signed a contract, thought to be the first of its kind in the UK, with company Halo, involving tens of thousands of potential saliva tests this academic year.

The results will be provided within 24 hours and fed into the NHS Test and Trace system.

Some other universities, including Leicester, Cambridge and East Anglia, are offering voluntary swab tests to staff and students.

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