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Universities will struggle to stop Covid-19 spreading among students if they cannot get tested with the current system unable to cope, ministers were warned today.

Students are already heading to universities this week amid alarming evidence that the test-and-trace system is failing to deal with growing demand, even in Covid-19 hotspots.

Experts are warning that this means cases are not being detected swiftly, which undermines the battle to stop a second wave of the killer virus hitting Britain. They also fear testing shortages could get worse as winter approaches and increasing numbers become ill.

“Universities re-opening will lead to more burden on the testing system which is already failing and under strain,” Chris Bonell, professor of public health sociology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told the Evening Standard. “Universities are taking measures to mitigate risks but without test and trace, it’s unlikely that they will be sufficient.”

He stressed that the test-and-trace system needed to be giving 70 to 80 per cent coverage to keep the virus at bay.

“The system at the moment is nowhere near that,” he added. Professor Bonell believes universities should re-open but other measures may be needed, such as closing pubs.

University chiefs have already been working with town halls and public health chiefs on testing and rapid responses to outbreaks, but are pleading with the Government to boost testing capacity. A Universities UK spokeswoman said: “We are continuing to urgently raise with Government the need for increased capacity in the national testing regime and also to ensure testing centres are accessible for university populations.”

Students at Birmingham City University arrive for the start of term (PA)

Some universities, including Exeter and Nottingham, have set up their own testing systems, however the Russell Group, made up of 24 leading research universities, also voiced concerns.

A spokesman said: “In addition to the steps being taken by our universities to reduce transmission on campus and in the wider community, we would urge the Government to ensure that sufficient local testing capacity is in place.”

Home Secretary Priti Patel admitted today that some of the situations faced by people trying to get tested were “unacceptable” but stressed the Government is “surging capacity” in local lockdown areas and tests were available within a 10-mile radius.

She said: “It is wrong to say tests are not available, new book-in slots are being made available every single day, mobile testing units are being made available. And on top of that home-testing kits are being issued across the country but specifically in local lockdown areas. Our capacity is at the highest level it has been since coronavirus.”

However, Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford, who has been advising ministers, said the speed at which more people would need tests had been underestimated and warned that the problem could get worse.

Thousands are preparing to study in socially distanced surroundings (PA)

“What has been underestimated was the speed at which the second wave would arrive, but also the pressure put on the system from children returning to school, and the testing demands associated with that, and people increasingly out and about,” he told the BBC. “They are definitely behind the curve in terms of getting the necessary tests for what we need today.”

Ministers have been accused of not being open about the scale of testing. There has been an estimated backlog of 185,000 swabs and patients are being told there are no test sites available or being directed hundreds of miles away.

Professor Alan McNally, director of the institute of microbiology and infection at the University of Birmingham, told BBC Breakfast there were “clearly underlying issues which nobody wants to tell us about”. Demand for tests has surged as school children pick up bugs. This has led to parents having to self-isolate awaiting tests and results.

The Office for National Statistics is investigating the death of a man in his eighties in Kent in January, which could mean the first Covid-19 fatality in the UK occurred more than a month earlier than previously recorded.

A Government spokesperson said: “Universities have been working hard to safely open campuses and buildings this autumn, and the Government has updated its guidance to assist the sector with these plans including on track and trace procedures.

“Testing capacity is the highest it has ever been, but we are seeing a significant demand for tests. It is vital that staff and students only get a test if they develop coronavirus symptoms.

“Universities should ensure that all staff and students are aware of all their options to access a test if required. They should ensure students who need to self-isolate are safe and well looked after, and work with their local Public Health England protection team in response to positive cases.”