A confirmed 62 university students in Newcastle have tested positive for Covid-19.
The figure comes just days after 50,000 students arrived in the city, which has seen an increase in cases this week in common with other cities across the UK.
Currently Newcastle has the fifth highest infection rate in England after cases almost trebled in a week.
Previously, the city’s top public health official, Prof Eugene Milne, warned the influx of students was a “serious problem” in the face of the resurging pandemic.
However university bosses have insisted strong measures are in place to help minimise the risk of the virus spreading – even disinfecting student accommodation – while students who flout coronavirus rules have reportedly been threatened with expulsion.
And in a joint statement from both universities, both said those infected – and their close contacts – were now self-isolating.
“These students are now self-isolating. Their flatmates and any close contacts are also self-isolating for 14 days in line with government guidance, and have been advised to contact NHS 119 to book a test as soon as possible should symptoms appear.
“Both Universities have Covid Response Teams on call that are working closely with NHS Test and Trace, Public Health England North East and the City to identify and get in touch with anyone who has been in close contact with those affected.
“This is so we can help reduce the spread of the virus and keep our colleagues, students and the community safe.
“We are also encouraging all students and staff to download the NHS Covid-19 App and as part of our efforts to control the spread of the virus we are also undertaking enhanced cleaning in the spaces used by these students.
“We are supporting all those students who are self-isolating, providing them with food and other essential items, as well as welfare support.”
The statement said both universities had been reinforcing the safety message to all arriving – or returning – students ahead of classes starting.
It added: “We are committed to doing everything we can to minimise risks and to ensure that the return of our students to the region happens as safely as possible for everyone.”
Public Health England data, up to the week ending September 20, shows several of the city’s hotspots are ‘student areas’. These include Jesmond, Sandyford, Heaton and the City Centre.
However, cases in many of these areas have been creeping up for several weeks, with many of Newcastle’s cases in recent weeks found in the city centre and the immediate fringes.
Cllr Irim Ali, Newcastle City Council cabinet member for Neighbourhoods and Public Health, said the council and Public Health England were working with the universities and accommodation providers to support the students and manage this outbreak through an Outbreak Control Team.
“Our universities are essential to the vibrancy of our city, providing world-leading education to students from our region and across the world. They are incredibly important to the city’s economy and we are doing everything we can to support them,” she added
“Long before students arrived for the start of term, both universities had taken extraordinary steps to implement COVID-secure arrangements and communicated with students about what they would need to do upon arrival in the city.
“ What this demonstrates is the need for everybody to comply with the regulations and guidance in place at all times in order to minimise the risk of infection. That means we must all follow the ‘Hands, Face, Space’ public health guidance and making sure we self-isolate when necessary and book a test if symptoms develop.”
In Scotland, rising cases linked to universities have led to students being told not to go the pub in a bid to slow the spread north of the border.
However student groups have slammed that move, claiming youngsters are being “singled out”, while First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told them that the outbreaks are “not your fault”.
In a letter sent to students at Newcastle University, vice-chancellor Professor Chris Day said that “reducing the spread of Covid-19 is everyone’s responsibility and I must impress upon you all the importance of abiding by the rules which apply to every single one of us.”
The letter went on to explain that students must not socialise with other people outside of their own household or support bubble in private homes, halls of residence or outside. It also emphasised that from Monday 28 September, it will become a legal requirement to self-isolate if you have symptoms of Covid-19 infection or if you are told to do so because you are a close contact of someone who has tested positive.
Prof Day’s letter concluded that it is “absolutely essential that we follow these rules”.
“If we don’t all play our part in reducing the rate of infection then you put not only your own health and the health of your friends and the community at risk, but also your education,” it said.
The letter also referenced fines handed out to students in other cities where they have not complied with the regulations and guidelines, and warned that any student found not to be following the safety guidelines will be subject to student disciplinary procedures or other sanctions.