Students are in lockdown in their halls of residence and facing periods of self-isolation and disciplinary action as universities grapple with increasing Covid-19 cases just days into the new term.
At least seven universities across the UK are already dealing with cases of Covid-19 among students, with outbreaks linked to illegal freshers’ parties, as well as other isolated cases identified in halls of residence.
Four students at the University of St Andrews tested positive for the virus and 40 more are in isolation following an illegal party at one of the university’s halls last week. Students there have been asked to observe a voluntary lockdown.
There are further cases at Edinburgh Napier, Glasgow, Stirling, Oxford Brookes, Bath and Manchester Metropolitan universities, with fears of more infections as greater numbers of students arrive on campus and the academic term begins.
Scottish universities are experiencing cases earlier because the new term began before it did for many English institutions, but vice-chancellors everywhere are bracing themselves as infections rise across the country and students try to negotiate restrictive regulations designed to keep them safe.
In a statement to St Andrews students, Sally Mapstone, the principal and vice-chancellor, said there had been four new positive cases among students, in addition to three “sporadic cases” reported last week. “These new cases of Covid were acquired in St Andrews, and are all linked to one party in a hall of residence in freshers’ week. Over 40 students are now in enforced isolation as a result.
“Quite apart from the fact that the party broke the law, and our own very clear guidelines on socialising and safe behaviour, the ripples from this single incident have consequences for all of us.”
At least 20 positive cases are reported to have been identified at Edinburgh Napier University, where security officers have broken up freshers’ parties. Marnie Davidson, 18, who is in her first year studying languages and intercultural communication, said she was getting a test after a flatmate tested positive. “After freshers’ week, there’s been a cluster of 11 positive cases and more are coming out.
“I’ve just received my Covid test today. There have been a few parties but they’ve been shut down. They’ve had security. At first everyone was: oh, security – but now there are positive tests coming out, we are kind of glad that some of these parties got dispersed.”
Glasgow University has had nine individual cases in its halls of residence and some Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) students were asked to isolate after a number of confirmed cases in flats at the Birley campus in Hulme. The Manchester Evening News reported that the cases followed a party involving 100 students in the courtyard to the halls last week. “We have several confirmed cases of Covid-19 within our student community,” an MMU spokesperson confirmed.
Asked about reports that private security guards wearing bodycams have been breaking up student parties, the MMU spokesperson said: “We’ve reminded our students about the role they need to play in stopping the spread of Covid.
“Our security teams have increased patrols around student accommodation and have taken action to stop gatherings and enforce the rules around social distancing and mixing of households. We have also taken disciplinary action against some students who have breached rules.”
Partying by students at Oxford Brookes University has also been linked in local media to a small but growing number of positive cases in the city, after freshers were filmed gathering in large numbers outside student accommodation in Cheney Lane.
The university’s vice-chancellor, Alistair Fitt, warned robust action would be taken against students who contravened Covid regulations, including expulsion. “The majority of our students are following the rules and are taking their safety seriously, as well as that of their fellow students and our wider community.
Town v gown tensions rise over threat of Covid infection rate as new terms starts
“However, the behaviour of a minority of our students in recent days is clearly unsafe and, in many cases, contravenes the law. We will be taking firm action against those students who fail to act in accordance with their responsibilities and the law on social gatherings.”
Richard Tyler, who is national coordinator of a group that lobbies on issues arising out of houses in multiple occupation, said residents were not surprised by Covid outbreaks at universities. “Thousands of students descending on university towns, to gather in crowded accommodation, among residents of all ages – this was bound to have a huge impact.”
Jo Grady, the general secretary of the University and College Union, said online learning should be universities’ default position. “Each day the evidence is mounting that the government and employers need to go much further to prevent a second wave. This cannot be business as usual.”
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