Comment Writer Sophie Utteridge considers the government’s alleged plan for university students to be locked-down before going home for Christmas, arguing that in reality is it a misjudged strategy

Written by Sophie Utteridge
Second Year Geography Student

With more reports coming in daily of COVID-19 outbreaks at universities, The Guardian have discovered that the government are drawing up plans for a pre-Christmas two-week lockdown period for all students of English universities. The move comes after Boris Johnson made his pledge to get students safely back home for the holidays when fears arose that this may not be possible due to the current high infection rates. However, reports of the plan have raised many concerns as to whether this student lockdown is actually practical or even possible when you consider the many factors that ministers seem to have missed entirely. Despite the proposal still being in its early stages, the lack of communication from the government does cast doubt on how thought through these plans are and what is being done to lessen the stress it will undoubtedly cause students across the country.

A nationwide student lockdown is not something that can be organised easily. Yet, ministers have proposed that the lockdown of students attending English universities should begin on the 8th December and end on 22nd December, only three days before Christmas. Already it is obvious that this might be a problem with over a million students all rushing to leave the UK’s major cities on the same day. The University and College Union have called this completely ‘unworkable,’ which is understandable when roads during the Christmas period will already be extremely busy. However, this is not just the only problem. Larissa Kennedy, the president of the National Union of Students (NUS), has said that the government are treating students like they are one ‘homogenous group.’ She told The Guardian that ‘there are students of all ages, students with parents and carers,’ and ‘students with jobs that they can’t do remotely.’ She goes on to agree that the proposal ‘doesn’t feel like [it] has been thought through.’

A nationwide student lockdown is not something that can be organised easily

One government plan simply cannot solve all the problems that are sure to arise from this student lockdown if the proposal is to remain as it currently is. The Guardian have rightly highlighted that term dates for universities are not all the same. For example, the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford finish their full Michaelmas term on 4 December whilst the University of Birmingham does not officially break up for Christmas until 21 December. It raises questions as to whether Cambridge and Oxford students are exempt from the lockdown or if they will have to isolate for two weeks prior to their end of term date. Or will they even have to stay in accommodation until the 22nd December like all other students across the country? These questions have yet to be addressed by the government, which only increases scepticism as to the viability of this plan. 

Another very important factor that seems to have been completely neglected by ministers is the fact that student mental health is surely going to be affected by this proposal. Going to university is already a stressful time for many students, not to mention the current circumstances making this all the worse. The Christmas holidays is often a time that students look forward to, offering a complete break from studying, and yet this proposed plan will likely severely hamper mental health. We have already seen students either dropping out, deferring or thinking about deferring as the stress of being a student in a pandemic is only mounting as cases rise. This stress will only be increased by questions such as whether students will be allowed out to buy food: will it be provided by their university at a cost or will they have to order online? Trying to get an order slot for shopping during the run up to Christmas, when everyone is trying to get food could be almost impossible.

Student mental health is surely going to be affected by this proposal

The government has also not made it clear what students are expected to do after Christmas. If students are told to isolate for two weeks prior to the holidays, are they then required to isolate for a further two weeks before they are allowed back onto campuses? If so, would this be at their family home or in their student accommodation? If not, then it defeats the purpose of ministers’ plans to stop the spread of the virus around the country all together. Yes, students may not bring the virus home, however that does not mean there is not a chance that they will not bring it back to universities.

The Welsh government have already pledged an extra £10 million for student mental health services as their students move into a seventeen-day lockdown from Friday 23 October. Kirsty Williams, the Welsh Minister for Education, has said that she hopes the money will bolster student support services and provide hardship funds during the period. However, there is no news yet from the English government as to what support will be provided to students if an English lockdown takes place. Of course, the plans are still very much in the early stages of development but many students are calling out for support and reassurance not only from the government but from universities too.

The Guardian have reported on a number of cases of students who feel they have been let down by their universities and the government. One such case was that of three students attending the University of Bournemouth who, upon having to self-isolate in their flat, received almost no support from the university. When they were five days into their isolation period, they were finally contacted by the university only to be told to join a group chat for students that were currently self-isolating and to try and arrange for shopping to be delivered to their accommodation. Unfortunately, this was not possible for the Bournemouth students, meaning they were left with their only option being to ask their parents to bring food parcels. It begs yet another question as to whether the government, and indeed universities, can cope with the level of support that will be needed by thousands of students across the country if all were to go into the planned two week lockdown. 

The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), have already recommended and advised that higher education institutions should be delivering learning completely online. They have argued that keeping face-to-face teaching for only essential activities is one of the most effective ways to limit the spread of the virus. The Guardian have also discovered in light of this, that at least one university in England is currently making plans for students to remain home after the Christmas holidays, if the infection rates are still high. So, even though there have only been reports of one university considering this option, it does mean that there are concerns that the infection rate will be far too high for students to be able to return to university safely. 

The government may have promised that getting students home for Christmas is a top priority, and many students are sure to agree, but the plan needs to be thought through. There needs to be a consultation with students and staff of universities to find the best plan of action to make it possible for students to return home. Communication and clarity from the government and universities will be essential to support students facing the prospect of going into enforced isolation. And of course, the plans are not yet finalised, yet some reassurance and some guidance might help the situation. After all, everyone has a common goal here, so making it happen has to be possible for all.

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