Publication - Advice and guidance

Coronavirus (COVID-19): universities, colleges and student accommodation providers

Published: 11 Sep 2020
Last updated: 14 Sep 2020 - see all updates

Guidance for higher and further education institutions and student accommodation providers to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. 

Coronavirus (COVID-19): universities, colleges and student accommodation providers
COVID-19 symptoms and Test and Protect

COVID-19 symptoms and Test and Protect

Staying vigilant and responding to COVID-19 symptoms

Everyone in college, university and student accommodation should be vigilant for the symptoms of COVID-19, and to understand what actions they should take if someone develops them, either onsite or offsite. The most common symptoms are:

  • new continuous cough
  • fever/high temperature
  • loss of, or change in, sense of smell or taste (anosmia)

Institutions and providers should follow public health guidance if someone becomes unwell with coronavirus symptoms on campus or in accommodation. The person should self-isolate straight away and, if possible, wear a face covering on route and avoid public transport. Colleges and universities should consider identifying isolation rooms in the event the person having symptoms cannot return home immediately.

Institutions and providers should monitor staff and student absences and whether these are due to possible or confirmed COVID-19.

Test and Protect and self-isolating

Any student or staff members with any of the symptoms of COVID-19 should self-isolate and use the NHS Inform website to book a test. If they cannot get online, they should call 0300 303 2713 for assistance in booking a test.

Students and staff who have access to a private vehicle are able to use the drive-through testing at regional test centres and mobile testing units. Anyone living within walking or cycling distance of a local test site can access testing this way. Home test kits are also available.

Test and Protect, Scotlands approach to implementing the 'test, trace, isolate, support' strategy is a public health measure designed to break chains of transmission of Coronavirus (COVID-19) in the community. This telephone service will make contact with any newly confirmed cases in the first instance to confirm their details, issue advice and identify who their close contacts are, who will be contacted in turn to provide advice.

The NHS will test people who have symptoms, trace people who may have become infected by spending time in close contact with someone who tests positive, and then support those close contacts to self-isolate. The aim is to ensure that if someone has the virus they will be less likely to pass it on to others. Organisations will play a vital role in ensuring that their workers are aware of and able to follow the public health advice and understand the importance of passing on complete information about their close contacts.  Universities, colleges and accommodation providers should ensure that fair work principles are followed when staff members have to self-isolate.

Colleges and universities should follow public health guidance if someone becomes unwell with coronavirus symptoms on campus. The person should self-isolate straight away and, if possible, wear a face covering on route and avoid public transport. 

Until they have been tested and told if it is safe to leave home, colleges and universities should make sure that staff and students do not come back to campus. Workers can request an isolation note through NHS Inform.

People who have tested positive for the virus will need to self-isolate for a minimum of 10 days. NHS contact tracers will interview them and get in touch with people they have been in close contact with, and tell them they must self-isolate for 14 days.  If people are informed by a contact tracer that they should isolate, institutions and providers should help them to do so straight away. They may feel well, as the virus could still be incubating when they are asked to isolate. Some people who are asked to isolate may not become unwell, but they must stay at home and self-isolate for the full 14 days. Institutions can ask them to work or study from home if they are able to and they are not unwell. Institutions must not ask someone isolating to come into work or college or university before their period of isolation is complete, in any circumstances.

Testing has an important part to play in our response to COVID-19, and has a vital but limited role as a confidence-building measure. In a disease with a 14 day incubation period, a negative test result before the end of the incubation period does not remove the possibility that a person who tests negative could go on to develop the disease and infect others. Testing has a role alongside all the other arrangements being put in place to reassure staff, students and the local communities around universities that appropriate arrangements are in place to keep people safe.

Where Infection Prevention Control measures have been utilised such as protective screen or use of PPE, the contact tracer will conduct a risk assessment to identify contacts at risk. The priority is to public health in order to break the chain of transmission of COVID-19.

More information can be found on the Test and Protect website and the NHS Inform website provides further health advice and information including on duration of self-isolation.

For Test and Protect and contact tracing purposes, a household contactis defined as:

  • those who are living in the same household as a case (e.g. those that live and sleep in the same home, or in shared accommodation such as university accommodation that share a kitchen or bathroom ·
  • those who do not live with the case but have contact within the household setting: Those that have spent a significant time in the home (cumulatively equivalent to an overnight stay and without physical distancing e.g. 8 hours or more) with a case
  • sexual contacts who do not usually live with the case
  • cleaners (without protective equipment) of household settings during the infectious period, even if the case was not present at the time.

Contact tracing

Institutions and providers must ensure that contact details for staff and students are up-to-date, and that staff and students are aware of their responsibility to alert the institution or provider to any changes throughout the year.

Institutions should keep records of staff and students who have attended on-site classes and activities. Records should also be kept of visitors and contractors. Particular attention should be made to the guidance on lawful data collection and management.

Student accommodation providers should maintain a record of visitors, to support the Test and Protect approach in the event of an outbreak. Students should support providers in keeping such a record and providers should give consideration to their duties under existing data protection legislation in keeping a record.

Campus and provider hospitality settings, such as cafes and bars, should comply with the published guidance for the hospitality sector.

Outbreak management

Institutions and providers should suspect an outbreak if there is either:

  • two or more linked cases (confirmed or suspected) of COVID-19 in a setting within 14 days - where cross transmission has been identified


  • an increase in staff and student absence rates, in a setting, due to suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19

If an organisation suspects a COVID-19 outbreak, they should immediately inform their local NHS board Health Protection Team (HPT). The college, university or provider may be then contacted by them, as they may get information from NHS Test & Protect or other sources.

In the event of an outbreak:

  • continue to follow the general guidance above to reduce risk
  • institutions and providers  should not make unilateral decisions about managing situations where they suspect an outbreak is occurring but should seek urgent advice from their local Health Protection Team about issues relating to testing of suspected cases and contacts and taking steps such as closing parts of facilitates   .
  • the local Health Protection Team will undertake a risk assessment and conduct a rapid investigation. They will advise on the most appropriate action to take
  • staff and students who are identified by the test and protect service as having had close contact with case(s) will be contacted and asked to self-isolate at home/ place of term time residence. depending on the risk assessment by the local Health protection team In some cases, a larger number of other staff and students may be asked to self-isolate as a precautionary measure. Where settings are observing guidance on infection prevention and control, which will reduce risk of transmission, the local health protection team will take this into account in determining whether closure of parts of or a whole setting will be necessary
  • depending on the risk assessment outcome, the Health Protection Team may establish a problem assessment group (PAG) (e.g. if there is a single confirmed case to determine what action is required) or an Incident Management Team (IMT) (e.g. if there is more than one case or an outbreak is suspected)  to help manage the situation
  • the Incident Management Team will lead the Public Health response and investigations, and work with the organisation to put appropriate interventions in place
  • the organisation will then put these appropriate interventions in place

To control an outbreak the Health Protection Team and Incident Management Team will work with the institution or provider to put appropriate interventions in place. Other measures may include:

  • cleaning in the setting: for cleaning and waste management, refer to guidance on cleaning in non-healthcare settings
  • consider who should be prioritised for testing among students and staff in line with advice from the Health Protection Team, ensure that staff (and other relevant people) are aware of what has happened and the actions being taken
  • closure: may be done following advice from the Health Protection Team and Incident Management Team or the institution or provider may make their own decision on closure ahead of this advice as a precaution or for business continuity reasons.

The Health Protection Team or Incident Management Team will declare when the outbreak is over.

First published: 11 Sep 2020 Last updated: 14 Sep 2020 -