By: Radhakrishna N S
By Nadeem Badshah
LEADING doctors, academics and student groups are divided on whether overseas students in the UK should be a priority group for Covid-19 vaccines.
Some teachers have backed the move for both home and international undergraduates, with data showing that 17.8 per cent of university students between the ages of 17 and 25 had antibodies from previous coronavirus infections.
The highest rate of antibody positivity – 49 per cent – was found in those who lived in halls of residence.
People aged 18-29 are set to be the last group of adults given their first dose in England. The prime minister Boris Johnson said last week that all adults would be given a dose by the end of July, but there will be “slightly fewer” jabs in April than March due to supply problems.
However, some medics believe that jabs should be administered based on a person’s health rather than their status as an undergraduate.
Professor Gurch Randhawa, the director of the Institute for Health Research at the University of Bedfordshire, told Eastern Eye: “As per the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) priority list, vaccinations should be carried out based upon risk of mortality from Covid-19.
“It is vitally important that when students are vaccinated, they are assessed based upon the JCVI priority list, and not because of their student status or nationality.
“The government needs to take an inclusive approach to ensuring that all students, UK and international, are offered the vaccine. By vaccinating everyone on UK shores, we protect all of us.”
The risk of home and international students catching the virus was raised by Dr Giles Carden, chief of staff at Lancaster University; and Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist and professor of molecular oncology at the University of Warwick, in a recent open letter to the government.
Their letter last month cited “data from a recent case study by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) which found the risk of Covid infection was greater in university residential settings such as halls of residence”.
Some universities resumed in-person teaching for students on practical courses last month. The government said it would review options for the return of students by the end of the Easter holidays.
Jaspreet Singh, a PhD candidate from India studying at Birmingham City University, told Eastern Eye: “I do think that international students should be a priority group in the UK for vaccines. They are more likely to be worse off than any other group in the country. In case of Covid infection, they do not have any of their immediate family members who would be able to take care of them.”
“The NHS health surcharge is paid by international students when they apply for their visa, so they are able to access NHS facilities when they need to. However, as they are on their own here, in this country, in my opinion that may have an adverse affect on their physical and mental health,” Singh added.
“If the government agrees to vaccinate international students as one of their priority groups, it will give a confidence boost to students from across the world to apply and study in the UK, which will help the economy in the long run.”
Australia announced that the coronavirus vaccine will be available to international students free of charge, while China said residents travelling abroad to study will be a priority group for Covid vaccinations.
However, Dr Nikita Ved, co-founder of research group The 1928 Institute at Oxford University, believes prioritising overseas students may have implications in their home countries as well as on international relations.
She said: “Access to education is a demonstrated priority in the UK government’s roadmap. Providing access to education should be indiscriminate and informed by regular risk assessments. Stemming from the principle of equity, overseas students should be included in such a vaccination programme.
“By placing a priority on individuals who will be educated at a UK institution, we would enforce unfair access to education among the population within their home country.
“Although it is the UK government’s responsibility to manage the health implications within their own education facilities, the implication of prioritising vaccinating overseas students raises questions on local equity and justice which needs careful consideration.
“This elicits a wider discussion on vaccine distribution and the UK’s commitment to distribution in low- and middle-income countries.”
Amrita DasGupta is a PhD student at SOAS university in London. She said: “With the slow rollout time, this particular age group might have to wait until the end of the year to get their jab and won’t be able to access the community spaces unless they get the second jab.
“Those who are from the middle- and lower-income countries would fail to get their vaccine within a given time span as vaccination is slow and sometimes bears a cost in these countries.
“It would be better if the UK could take the responsibility of vaccinating their international student communities by starting vaccination drives at the universities free of charge.
“This way, the international students’ community will feel at ease and secure.”
Dan Marshall, president of the student union at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, said: “How we vaccinate students may not seem an urgent concern, but it should be.
“If we don’t ensure students can get a vaccine where they are and have a plan to vaccinate international students too, the return to campus in September becomes 10 [times] more difficult.”
There were 485,645 international students studying in the UK in 2018-19, 342,620 of whom were from nations outside the EU.
People studying in the UK have been advised that they need to be registered with a GP in order to get the jab.
Anne Marie Graham, chief executive of the UK Council for International Student Affairs, said: “International students registered with a GP in the UK will be contacted for their vaccine according to the JCVI priority groups. This ensures that students with qualifying health conditions, or those working in frontline healthcare, will receive vaccinations in line with the wider population.
“International students should ensure they are registered with their local GP as soon as possible. They will be contacted to receive their vaccine as soon as their relevant group becomes eligible.”