Students in England have expressed scepticism at government plans to evacuate all students from university halls for Christmas, while also stopping the spread of coronavirus across the country.
The Department of Health plans would involve mass testing across campuses, and a travel window that would stagger the return of students on public transport between the 3rd and 9th of December. The Department of Education has encouraged universities to roll out online learning to facilitate the transition.
Deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries said: “The mass movement of students across the country at the end of term presents a really significant challenge within the COVID-19 response. The measures announced today will help minimise that risk and help students get home to their families as safely as possible for Christmas. It is crucial that students follow the guidance in order to protect their families and the communities they return to.”
However, many students have expressed concerns about the implementation of the plans.
“I can't see how it's enforceable because you've got thousands and thousands of students across the country,” Barnaby Fournier, a first-year Manchester University student told VICE News. “If you don't go home during that week it's not like they're going to chain your door so you can't go home anyway.”
“It's quite disheartening because we're already missing out on so much compared to the traditional uni experience,” he added. “So to be sent home ten days before we were meant to go home to just sit in our room is just another blow.”
Fournier says the new travel window has disrupted students who may need to fly home and had already made travel plans. "I think a lot of the anxiety around finding out now is why didn't the government plan this out before we came?” he says. “One of my flatmates is from Belfast, so she has flights booked out for the 19th when term was meant to end, so that's put her plans into complete havoc."
Students also expressed concern that the possibility of being forced to isolate in halls after testing positive could deter students from taking part in mass testing. “Testing itself I imagine is really going to appear scary to students,” Ben McGowan, a first-year Manchester University student said. “The threat of being locked in halls on your own whilst everyone else goes home if you test positive could discourage a lot of students from testing at all.”
Some believe it will bolster a nationwide rent strike movement that’s calling for the potential suspension of rents while online learning is used.
McGowan, who is currently striking over rent, says this recommendation – asking students to leave their halls earlier than normal – only justifies their anger: “I think if any universities have the gall to charge any rent for the next month they’ll rightfully face a massive resistance when rent is due in the new year.”
Larissa Kennedy, the NUS national president, told VICE News that more support is needed for students: “Students were sold a lie about the experiences they would have on campus, just to extort them for their rent and fees. That’s unacceptable.”
“What we need right now is support for students who have to isolate,” she added. “And if universities and Westminster aren’t going to come through, we, students are organising to take this ourselves: we’ve torn down fences, gone on rent strike, held protests and campaigned, and we’re prepared to do it for as long as it takes for the government to realise that students deserve better.”