Ministers have confirmed they could force students in England to be double vaccinated to attend lectures in person or stay in halls of residence, setting the government on a possible collision course with a number of its own MPs.
Asked about the idea, first outlined in the Times, the education minister Vicky Ford did not rule it out, saying: “I think it’s really important that young people step forward for their vaccination.”
Ford told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Obviously, I can’t comment on things that haven’t been announced, but one does need to look at every practicality to make sure that we can get students back safely, and make sure we can continue to prioritise education.
Asked to confirm it was being considered, she added: “We’ve always considered everything that we can do to make sure that all people are safe in education. And the key thing, as we know, to keep transmission down, is to make sure that people get their vaccination.”
The response was an apparent change from an interview Ford did earlier with Sky. Asked there if double vaccination would become a requirement for students to attend university lectures, she replied: “No.”
According to the Times, Ford’s department has mooted the idea but is also concerned about its practicality, given the self-governing nature of universities.
It is another front in the government’s push for so-called domestic vaccine passports, an idea ministers had previously ruled out. A week ago, Boris Johnson said these would be necessary for people attending nightclubs or similarly crowded venues from late September.
Such ideas, which do not allow the alternative method of showing a recent negative Covid test or proof of antibodies for the virus, have alarmed many Conservative MPs on civil liberties grounds, as well as the Liberal Democrats.
Labour has also expressed scepticism about the idea, meaning the government could well lose any Commons vote on such a plan. However, there is speculation that the floating of such ideas is aimed primarily at pushing more young people into getting vaccinated.
It comes as one leading scientist expressed cautious optimism after the number of new Covid-19 cases in the UK fell for five days in a row for the first time since February – although this does not include the impact of 19 July restriction easing.
On Sunday, the UK recorded 29,173 new cases, down from 48,161 logged on 18 July. It is the first time since the pandemic that a sustained drop has not coincided with a national lockdown. Most legal restrictions on social contact in England were lifted on 19 July.
Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling group, which provides modelling evidence to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), told Today that schools breaking up could be part of the reason, in part because fewer tests were being carried out.
He said: “I would say that the fact the cases have gone down for the last five days or so is, I’m cautiously optimistic. I’m cautiously optimistic about that, but I think we’re going to have to wait another couple of weeks before we see, firstly, the effect of the 19 July relaxation and, second, whether hospital admissions will start to go down.
Tildesley added: “I think what we need to think about, though, is that there has been a change recently and I think the big one is that in a lot of parts of the country schools have now closed for the summer.
“Now, of course, because of that, what that means is – secondary school children have been doing lateral flow tests twice a week for quite a long period of time and we know at the moment cases are slightly higher in younger people – because schools have now broken up, it may be that part of the reason cases have dropped somewhat is that we’re not detecting as many cases in younger people now.
“The other thing we do need to look at before we really draw confidence in whether we are seeing everything turning round is what’s happening with hospital admissions and, of course, what’s happening with deaths.”