One of the UK’s leading public health experts has warned that universities should be two-thirds empty in order to prevent massive spikes in coronavirus infections across campuses, as freshers describe the difficulties of starting student life under tight restrictions.
Dr John Ashton, the author of a new book on the pandemic, Blinded by Corona, said there needs to be “far less density” in student populations within university cities and towns this autumn otherwise there will be a major national increase in Covid-19 cases.
Cities such as Belfast and Manchester have had an influx of thousands of students in the past fortnight.
In the first week of term, which began last Monday, 32 students and two members of staff tested positive for Covid-19 at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) – which has taken disciplinary action, including issuing fines, against more than 30 students over breaches of Covid guidance.
The University of Manchester (UoM) has also launched disciplinary action against several students and is considering a curfew across its residential halls over repeated breaching of social distancing regulations.
In one area of South Belfast, the Holy Lands district between the river Lagan and Queen’s University, the Police Service of Northern Ireland has threatened criminal convictions against students who have been holding mass open-air parties in the area since last weekend.
With just 14 streets, the Holy Lands has the highest density of students in the whole of the UK. A further 5,000 freshers are expected to arrive in the district over the next week.
Dr Ashton said it was “almost inevitable” that the influx of students into universities throughout the UK will intensify Covid-19 infections in the early autumn. He is the former regional director of public health and regional medical officer for north-west England.
“The rational thing to have done would be for universities throughout the UK, within the whole educational system, to limit student numbers to a third of their normal populations. This would mean less density and make it easier to impose hygiene and safe distancing policies,” Dr Ashton said.
“The one-third rule should have been extended until the end of this year at least and the two-thirds who aren’t on campus could be given socially useful things to do, like help out with open-air activities for schools and youth projects while the pandemic is dealt with.”
He added that he could understand why the message about safe distancing and other counter-coronavirus measures was not getting through to some young people.
“The government broke the trust of people with things like the Dominic Cummings affair. It has left young people in particular shrugging their shoulders in its aftermath and wondering: why bother!”
In Belfast’s Holy Lands, longtime resident Brid Ruddy described her area as a “giant Covid-19 Petri dish” and predicted there would be a localised outbreak of the virus this autumn.
“We have videos of young people in groups of 10 sitting on roofs, blocking streets, shouting abuse at residents and just generally partying until 7am. They are sitting in sofas out in the streets, kissing, hugging, screaming and singing with boom boxes blaring.In one house, police counted 200 people in a large house party,” she said.
In Manchester on Wednesday morning,, Zoe*, 18, from Newcastle was heading out into the drizzle after staying at a friend’s flat in MMU student accommodation – despite local lockdown rules preventing socialising between households. She said there were “lots of flat parties going on at the moment”.
The accommodation – Birley Halls in Hulme – was the site of a reported gathering of about 100 students last week, leading to the university upping its security patrols on campus, while several students are now believed to be self-isolating there following positive Covid-19 tests.
“Before Covid I was expecting freshers’ to be just like everyone says – amazing – but I’m learning online, so I haven’t even met my coursemates,” said Zoe.
“I missed the end of school, leavers prom, and then I got really ‘effed around with my A-level results. Not being able to go out now is so shit. I wouldn’t even know where the clubs are here.”
Three miles down the road at UOM’s student residence campus in leafy Fallowfield, another fresher, Elizabeth*, 18, said she thought she was able to invite other students round to her flat at Oak House – one of the blocks of flats – despite local lockdown restrictions.
“We’ve invited our block down [to our flat]. It gets quite busy here with flat parties and stuff, but usually it lasts for about half an hour before it gets cut by one of the security staff,” she said.
*Names have been changed to protect student’s identities.