Students’ basic legal rights must be upheld throughout the pandemic. To even have to argue this is, frankly, shocking.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson told MPs it was “essential” that measures were put in place to ensure students could be with their loved ones during the festive period while “minimising the risk of transmission” of Covid-19.

Speaking in the House of Commons on Tuesday, Mr Williamson said: “Where there are specific circumstances that warrant it, there may be a requirement for some students to self-isolate at the end of term and we will be working with the sector to ensure this will be possible, including ending in-person learning if that is deemed to be necessary.”

Responding to his, the National Union of Students (NUS) criticised Mr Williamson for being “completely absent” while coronavirus outbreaks struck universities.

NUS’ Vice-President Higher Education Hillary Gyebi-Ababio said: “In the past five days we’ve seen universities lock fire gates to stop students from leaving their halls, send private security guards with dogs to patrol student residences and lock down students with zero notice.

“This is unacceptable. Williamson has said his government prioritises education, but he’s been completely absent until today.

Mr Williamson’s statement comes as a surge in Covid-19 cases has led to thousands of students having to self-isolate at universities including Glasgow, Manchester Metropolitan and Edinburgh Napier.

According to university statements this month, at least 30 institutions across the UK have seen confirmed coronavirus cases.

The NUS added: “We welcome Williamson’s acknowledgement that students should not be held to different laws and restrictions to the rest of the population, nor should we be blamed for the uptick in Coronavirus cases.

“It is, however, extremely concerning that it has taken the government so long to clarify this. Students’ basic legal rights must be upheld throughout the pandemic. To even have to argue this is, frankly, shocking.

“Williamson and the government must now give students the right to leave their courses and accommodation without financial detriment and lead an effective strategy for education, now and in the post-Covid recovery.

“As students, we know that education in at the heart of building a better society. Recent weeks have shown that the government has broken our education system by treating it as a market: we need a strong new vision for post-Covid society.”