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We aimed to explore university students' perceptions and experiences of SARS-CoV-2 mass asymptomatic testing, social distancing and self-isolation, during the COVID-19 pandemic. This qualitative study comprised of four rapid online focus groups conducted at a higher education institution in England, during high alert (tier 2) national COVID-19 restrictions. Participants were purposively sampled university students (n = 25) representing a range of gender, age, living circumstances (on/off campus), and SARS-CoV-2 testing/self-isolation experiences. Data were analysed using an inductive thematic approach. Six themes with 16 sub-themes emerged from the analysis of the qualitative data: 'Term-time Experiences', 'Risk Perception and Worry', 'Engagement in Protective Behaviours', 'Openness to Testing', 'Barriers to Testing' and 'General Wellbeing'. Students described feeling safe on campus, believed most of their peers are adherent to protective behaviours and were positive towards asymptomatic testing in university settings. University communications about COVID-19 testing and social behaviours need to be timely and presented in a more inclusive way to reach groups of students who currently feel marginalised. Barriers to engagement with SARS-CoV-2 testing, social distancing and self-isolation were primarily associated with fear of the mental health impacts of self-isolation, including worry about how they will cope, high anxiety, low mood, guilt relating to impact on others and loneliness. Loneliness in students could be mitigated through increased intra-university communications and a focus on establishment of low COVID-risk social activities to help students build and enhance their social support networks. These findings are particularly pertinent in the context of mass asymptomatic testing programmes being implemented in educational settings and high numbers of students being required to self-isolate. Universities need to determine the support needs of students during self-isolation and prepare for the long-term impacts of the pandemic on student mental health and welfare support services.

Original publication




Journal article


International journal of environmental research and public health

Publication Date





School of Health Sciences, University of Nottingham, Nottingham NG7 2HA, UK.


Humans, Students, Universities, England, Pandemics, COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, COVID-19 Testing, Physical Distancing