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Thousands of Northern Ireland students at English universities can travel home for Christmas in early December.
That is according to newly published guidance from the UK government.
A “student travel window” will be in place from Thursday 3 to Wednesday 9 December.
According to the most recent statistics from the Department for the Economy there are more than 12,500 students from Northern Ireland at English universities.
However, as those figures date from prior to the coronavirus pandemic some Northern Irish students may already be studying remotely at home.
Those currently living in England have now been told they can travel home to spend Christmas with their families after the current lockdown in England ends on Tuesday 2 December.
Until then, they must stay at their term-time address.
All English universities are expected to offer online teaching by 9 December so students can continue study at home if necessary.
”From 3 December to 9 December, which will be known as the ‘student travel window’, students will be allowed to travel home on staggered departure dates set by universities,” the new UK government guidance states.
“The student travel window will mean students can travel having just completed the four-week period of national restrictions, reducing the risk of transmission to family and friends at home.”
The UK government has also confirmed it is planning to carry out mass testing of students for Covid.
“Tests will be offered to as many students as possible before they travel home for Christmas, with universities in areas of high prevalence prioritised,” the UK government guidance states.
“This will provide further reassurance that where students test negative, they can return home safely and minimise the risk of passing coronavirus on to their loved ones.
“If a student tests positive before their departure they will need to remain in self-isolation for the required period of 10 days.
“Moving all learning online by 9 December gives enough time for students to complete the isolation period and return home for Christmas.
“The guidance delivers on the government’s pledge to ensure students can be with their families at Christmas while limiting transmission of the virus.”
image copyrightReutersimage captionMass testing at Northern Ireland universities has not been announced
It is not yet clear if mass testing will also be in operation before Christmas at Northern Ireland universities.
However, the Universities Minister in England, Michelle Donelan, said she was working with the devolved governments to ensure that all students could travel home as safely as possible.
English students at universities in Northern Ireland have been told to follow the restrictions put in place by the Northern Ireland Executive before they travel home.
The executive has yet to announce guidance for students in Northern Ireland on returning home at Christmas.
Meanwhile, ministers from the four nations met virtually on Wednesday evening to discuss a joint approach to coronavirus during the Christmas period.
The first ministers and UK Secretaries of State for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland held talks with cabinet office minister Michael Gove.
Mr Gove said they recognised families across the UK “want to be able to see their loved ones this Christmas”.
It is understood government officials will now be considering how to put the desire for a “joint approach to Christmas” into action, with another meeting scheduled for next week.