FACT CHECK: Are York’s Rising COVID-19 Numbers Driven By University Students?

MP Julian Sturdy claims “York’s universities are driving the spike in COVID cases.” We examine the claim and see if the data agrees with him.

(Image: House of Commons)

MP Julian Sturdy claims “York’s universities are driving the spike in COVID cases.” We examine the claim and see if the data agrees with him.

Last Thursday Julian Sturdy, MP for York Outer, the constituency which the University of York sits in, tweeted that “York’s universities are driving the spike in [COVID] cases & the transmission rates in the wider community remains unclear.”

Sturdy cites the rise in Fulford and Heslington, an area with a significant student population, as evidence of this, claiming in a statement on Twitter that cases in this ward accounted for one in five positive COVID tests in York.

On the face of it, this claim is true. The Fulford, Heslington, & University Middle Super Output Area reported 147 cases in the seven days prior to 13 October, while the York local area reported 591 cases over the same time period.

However, the claim that the rise in cases is being driven by York’s two universities is not fully supported by this figure alone.

Not only does the Fulford, Heslington & University ward cover more than just the University of York’s campuses, but the other university in the city is not in this ward. 

York St John University is instead located in the York City Centre ward. York City Centre has reported 40 cases over the same time period, although it is important to note that several YSJ accommodation sites are located in other wards.

On top of this, many students live off-campus, notably in areas like Tang Hall and Osbaldwick, where the case rates are still close to national averages.

As YUSU President Patrick O’Donnell pointed out in an email to Mr Sturdy, case numbers in York were already rising by the start of term.

The week starting 31 August, PHE reported only 27 positive tests in York. In the week starting 21 September, the week before the start of term at the University of York, a total of 123 positive tests were reported in York.

Similarly, the week starting 24 August, PHE reported just 15 positive tests in York, while in the week starting 14 September, which was York St John University’s Welcome Week and the week before the start of term there, 79 tests came back positive.

Furthermore, while case numbers in York rose sharply after term started, it is difficult to say whether this is caused by the arrival of students, or simply a trend that has been seen across the UK.

However, although Mr Sturdy does not adequately justify his claims, he is not entirely wrong in saying that students make up a significant amount of York’s COVID cases.

York Vision has been tracking the University’s published case numbers ever since they were first released two weeks ago. We can cross-reference these figures with local data for the City of York.

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Between 10 and 16 October, the University reported 301 students and/or staff members starting to self-isolate after a positive COVID-19 test, accounting for just over 51.0% of positive tests in York over this period.

However, there are several potential problems with this data. 

For one, the University does not disclose whether someone who appears in the figures is a student or a staff member, nor whether they live on or off-campus, nor when they tested positive – only how many new cases it is notified of since the previous update.

In addition, neither University nor PHE data is segmented by age group, so it is difficult to identify whether the people testing positive are really students.

Thus, while the University community is a significant driver of cases, this may well be simply because it is a significant proportion of the City’s population.

The University has at last count just under 19,000 students and approximately 4,500 staff members, accounting for 10-15% of the City’s population – although not all students are counted as York residents.

So it is expected that they will be a substantial portion of the City’s caseload, especially since the majority of them are young adults, which is the age group that most infections are detected in during the second wave.

However, 51.0% of positive Covid tests in York over the past week have been in the University community, which is a considerably higher proportion than 10-15%.

So it is difficult to determine whether or not students are “driving the spike”, as Mr Sturdy put it. While the data suggests that the University community is a significant proportion of York’s positive tests, there is not enough information to say if they are the actual cause of the spike.

Sharon Stoltz, Director of Public Health at the City of York Council, weighed in on the matter during a live Q&A session, saying: “Inevitably we’re seeing cases in students, but it would be wrong to say that students are the sole cause of an increase in our numbers.

“Even though it is true that when you look at the demographic of cases of Covid across the city it’s young people aged under 25 that we’re seeing the largest number of cases – we estimate that only about half of those cases are actually students.

“We’re seeing an increase in cases across all age groups.”

In response to Julian Sturdy’s statement, Patrick O’Donnell, YUSU President, tweeted that “the York PHE Director has explicitly said York’s rise cannot be attributed to students”, adding that it was “very disappointing to see this from someone who should be bringing our community together.”