Ethical framework for asymptomatic COVID-19 testing programmes for students in higher education institutions

Rapid responses to COVID-19

This project was to develop a framework based on a consultation, ethical and legal analysis, and expert discussion.

The consultation was conducted through Thiscovery, THIS Institute’s online research platform, to gather the views of students and staff relating to an asymptomatic COVID-19 testing programme at the University of Cambridge.

The framework helps to support higher education institutions in their decision-making about asymptomatic COVID-19 testing programmes for students.



The University of Cambridge introduced a weekly asymptomatic screening programme for students in College accommodation in October 2020 as part of its efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

The programme, based on laboratory PCR tests using facilities managed as part of the national lighthouse laboratory network, involves pooling swabs from students in their households. If the pool tests positive, individual tests are performed for each participating student to investigate further.


This project featured a consultation with students and staff through THIS Institute’s online research platform, Thiscovery. Individuals were invited to take part through an online questionnaire or interview. Over 200 participants provided their views, enabling students and staff to say what was important to them on a range of issues relating to the asymptomatic testing programme.

The findings of the consultation were integrated with ethical and legal analysis and expert discussion to produce an ethical framework, with the aim of supporting higher education institutions in making decisions about asymptomatic testing programmes.


The results of this work are being written up and will be published soon. The framework is being made available now to help support higher education institutions in their decision-making.

Access the framework and resources

Funding and ethics

This study is funded by Mary Dixon-Woods’ NIHR Senior Investigator award, and by The Healthcare Improvement Studies Institute (THIS Institute), University of Cambridge. THIS Institute is supported by the Health Foundation, an independent charity committed to bringing about better health and healthcare for people in the UK. Caitriona Cox, Academic Clinical Fellow, lead researcher, is funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) for this research project, which was also part-funded by Mary Dixon-Woods’ NIHR Senior Investigator award (NF-SI-0617-10026). The project is supported by the Wellcome Trust.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the NHS, the NIHR, or the Department of Health and Social Care or the Wellcome Trust. The survey and interview consultation received approval from the University of Cambridge Psychology Research Ethics Committee.