When Theo Lockett tested positive for coronavirus on Thursday, he was the first of his 10 flatmates to do so. Within 24 hours, four more had reported positive results amid a rapidly increasing outbreak in University of Glasgow student accommodation.
“Physically I feel tired and drained, I’ve got a sore throat and I can’t taste,” says the 19-year-old, who moved to Glasgow two weeks ago from York. “Emotionally it’s miserable; you can’t meet new people, you can’t go to campus, you can’t go home. It feels like you’ve come all this way to start a new life and you’ve ended up locked in a house for two weeks.”
Lockett and his flatmates are among hundreds of first-years isolating in Murano Street Student Village, the university’s largest halls of residence, which, alongside nearby Cairncross House, is at the centre of the outbreak. Across the city, thousands more new arrivals are restricted by guidance forbidding students from socialising beyond their household group. By Friday, the university said there were 172 positive cases within its residences and 600 students self-isolating – with numbers expected to rise as testing increases.
On Saturday Glasgow University announced on Twitter it was offering a month’s rent rebate and £50 credit to all students in its residences, whether or not they were self-isolating.
Thomas Quinn, who has chronic bronchitis and is isolating in Queen Margaret residences after a flatmate tested positive, moved from the Middle East to study politics and philosophy. “My girlfriend also came from the Middle East to go to Edinburgh and my vision was to make loads of friends in Glasgow and she’d make loads of friends in Edinburgh, and we’d go to all these parties and restaurants together,” says Quinn, 18.
“If you’d told me a year ago that freshers’ week would consist of meeting approximately four people I would have been pretty surprised.”
While the university has linked the outbreak to social activity during the first weekend of freshers’ week, many students have expressed frustration at being blamed for socialising after being encouraged to physically attend campus.
“They’ve essentially picked up a few thousand 17- and 18-year-olds, stuck them all together away from their parents for the first time, and then shut their eyes and pretended they didn’t know what was going to happen,” says Quinn.
“If I hadn’t paid the deposit and things had gotten to this stage, I wouldn’t be here,” agrees Lockett. “It’s been difficult paying so much money just to sit in a bed that’s slightly more uncomfortable than the one I have at home, in a room that’s slightly colder than the one I have at home.”
Scottish students do not pay tuition fees but students from the rest of the UK, like Lockett, pay £9,250 a year. Rent at Murano Street costs £126.77 a week on top of a non-refundable £600 deposit, which was paid before some university departments moved all their teaching to online-only.
A Glasgow University spokesperson added that the university was working to ensure testing was readily available across all its residences and would monitor the situation closely to ensure adherence to the socialising and isolation rules. A mobile testing unit has also been established at the Murano Street residences.
“We have made clear to students that they must not socialise with others [beyond] their households. We have also strongly advised them to avoid hospitality venues such as bars over the weekend. The student unions on campus will remain closed,” the spokesperson added.
There has been a spate of campus outbreaks across the UK as students have returned. At least 23 universities have reported outbreaks, a number that is likely to rise as more students arrive. The National Union of Students (NUS) accused the government and university vice chancellors of “selling students a lie” about how safe it would be to return to campuses for face-to-face teaching.
NUS president Larissa Kennedy told the Observer that universities have been allowed to prioritise their income over the safety of students, workers and local communities.
“We can all see that this is a completely unsafe situation,” she said. “Universities were more concerned about tuition fee income and the government more concerned with making sure that the rental sector stays afloat, than making sure that safety was the priority.”
Students are in an impossible situation, she added. They “have done what they’ve been told [and returned to university] – but they’ve been sold a lie. The government is gambling with students’ lives.”
The NUS is calling on universities to invest urgently in digital infrastructure, so that students can choose to learn off-campus. It also wants the government to fill any funding gaps universities will face if they send students home.
“If universities were fully funded, I have no doubt we’d be in a completely different situation. If we’re going to see universities act in the interest of student and community safety, the government needs to underwrite this with a real sense of urgency.”
If university outbreaks continue and students are forced to self-isolate repeatedly, she said she would not be surprised if students demanded tuition fee refunds later in the year.
During her daily briefing on Friday, Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon spoke directly to students, telling them “you don’t deserve to be facing this and it’s not your fault”, before going on to confirm a ban on students in Scotland visiting pubs, restaurants and cafes this weekend.
The guidance was met with confusion by students – many of whom work in the hospitality industry – and businesses in Glasgow.
Debbie Shields, the president of Scottish Women in Business, which represents a number of hospitality business owners, says members have already been frustrated by localised lockdowns in Glasgow on top of national restrictions.
“They realise we need to do something and that health is obviously as important as the economy,” said Shields. “But the messages coming from government have been so confusing and really difficult for anyone to wade through. There were students [on Thursday] hearing that new guidance and not knowing whether they could go into work this weekend.”
For some, the toll on students’ mental health from limited social contact while being away from home is a scarier prospect than being infected with coronavirus.
Becca Leslie, who also lives in Murano Street, where residents are unable to individually control the heating in their bedrooms or to open their windows beyond a safety latch, says the situation has been “very overwhelming and people are feeling the mental effects”.
And, she points out, it comes on top of an already difficult summer for students who were also at the centre of last month’s exam results U-turns across the UK.
“This is meant to be a massive year for us; we’re 18 and our lives are just beginning,” says Leslie, who moved from Aberdeen to study film and television with German and French. “But it feels like everything that could have gone wrong has gone wrong.”