Gavin Williamson is making plans for students to return to universities in England from next month.
The Education Secretary will announce on February 22 that final year students in practical degrees will go back to campus, with their peers expected to follow shortly after.
But vice-chancellors say that most of their students have already been told to stay at home, while the unions – which have plagued Mr Williamson’s tenure – are unwavering in their complaints about Covid safety.
It comes amid wrangling over when the national lockdown will end with schools expected to reopen on March 8, the keystone in Boris Johnson’s plan to liberate Britain.
Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Education, arrives at the Department of Education, on January 27. He’s hoping to send children back to school and reopen universities from March
Graduates of Oxford University walk by Hertford College, wearing traditional academic gowns in the summer of 2014
Mr Williamson’s announcement for the universities coincides with the Prime Minister’s February 22 date to produce a roadmap ‘to unlock.’
He is under mounting pressure from Tory backbenchers to announce a major easing of curbs – while scientists are urging caution.
Striking fear into the teaching unions is the R-rate – which fell only marginally from 0.7-1.1 in the previous week to 0.7-1.0 in the most recent seven days.
Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, told The Guardian: ‘The priority right now must be to keep as much teaching as possible online for the rest of the academic year, and putting staff and student safety first.
‘Instead, ministers and universities seem intent on reopening campuses due to financial pressures. We need to learn the lessons of last term and prevent further outbreaks.’
Sticking in ministers’ minds are the chaotic scenes of the autumn when students were barricaded inside their halls of residence as the virus reappeared from the summer.
But if they don’t manage to get the students back before Easter, many won’t see any reason to go back at all as tutoring ceases ahead of the exam schedule in May and June.
Professor Peter Mathieson, vice-chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, told the Guardian: ‘We have indicated to undergraduate students that we don’t think there will be any substantial face-to-face teaching for the rest of this semester, which means until Easter.
‘We still hope it will be possible for postgraduate students. Sadly undergraduate students are not going to get a lot of teaching in this academic year.’
As it stands, only students carrying out laboratory-based work such as medics and vets, and courses deemed important like teaching and social work, are on campus for face-to-face learning.
Some universities, like the London School of Economics, have already cancelled any in-person learning for the academic year.
But universities minister Michelle Donelan told the Guardian these institutions would be provided the option to row back these plans.
In contempt of the Government orders, many students returned to their campuses at the end of the Christmas holidays.
Most estimate that around 30 to 40 percent of their normal cohort are back as the youngsters find a new home away from home.
Prof Mathieson told the Guardian: ‘Some students have voted with their feet, it’s been reported by just about all the universities I’ve heard from, Russell Group and elsewhere.
‘It’s interesting, it reflects the fact students start to identify university as their new home.’
The Government is still drawing up its plan to be unveiled later this month with measures floated including longer school days and Covid tests for office workers.
Almost 11 million people have now had their first dose of the vaccine and ministers are facing mounting calls to flesh out exactly how they intend to lift restrictions.
The Government said it hopes to have offered jabs to all over-50s by May, meaning the 33million most vulnerable citizens would have been inoculated.
Some inside Downing Street are even more bullish and believe it is possible that almost all adults could have received a jab by then.
Ministers are expected to adopt a ‘tentative’ approach – with some sources claiming a ‘booze ban’ on pubs between April and May was being considered to stop social distancing slipping.
But a senior Government source told MailOnline that an alcohol ban in pubs was not on the cards.
They said: ‘We are not going to open pubs that can’t sell booze. What would be the point of that?’
Other measures being floated include axing the 10pm curfew for pubs – which has been given the go-ahead according to some reports, along with an end to the requirement for drinkers to order a ‘substantial meal’ with alcohol.
England could also emulate Scotland’s indoor alcohol ban that was in effect during its November lockdown, and allow unlicensed cafes to reopen while keeping pubs closed.