Life

'The Coughing Is a Giveaway' – Inside the UK's Secret Uni Coronavirus Parties

If you don't have COVID-19, you're not coming in.
November 18, 2020, 10:40am
Covid positive party at university invite
A screenshot of a party invite. Photo: Courtesy of interviewee

While clubs remain locked off, small pockets of fun from a pre-2020 era live on in the form of semi-regulated private parties. Full of dry coughing and rife with the stench of pickle juice and shots, the COVID-positive party is like a normal party – but for people who’ve tested positive for coronavirus. 

They initially began as a reaction to local lockdowns, when university students weren’t allowed to leave their halls of residence to head out and party. Because pubs, clubs and bars were off limits, student flats and halls became the only place for students to meet new people. 

The notoriously poorly-treated students at the University of Manchester are reportedly hosting COVID posi-parties, as are students at universities in Leeds and Newcastle. 

Georgia, a biomedical sciences student at Newcastle University, was initially suspicious of the gatherings.

“At the start, we all thought they sounded a bit sketchy. But one night we were under isolation and were just sitting drinking in our flat. Then the flat upstairs tested and invited us up, saying ‘it's not like you're going to give us anything when we've already got it’. I guess it kind of evolved from there. It went from ‘oh, it doesn't really matter’, to hundreds of people going to parties. In my ten days of isolation, there ended up being six or seven of these parties a week.” 

With Newcastle University among the institutions delaying the start of the academic year due to the pandemic, Georgia explains that students had extra time to get creative to occupy themselves.

“A lot of [the parties were] centred around the fact that no one can taste or smell anything, so there was a lot of doing shots of stuff like absinthe and pickle juice – just random things because we couldn’t taste or smell. A party trick was to test how far the lack of taste or smell went. People would be eating raw onions.”

COVID-positive parties replicate the long forgotten get-togethers of a pre-2020 life, but if anything, they’re messier. Those VICE UK spoke to said that drinks flow faster and harder without the stinging burn of alcohol going down your throat.

Fellow Newcastle student Louis says that his Freshers Week was dominated by these parties, despite the ever-present threat of shutdown. “They tend to start as large gatherings in common rooms, etc, and then the police or security break it all up,” he explains. “We then proceed to wait a few minutes, and then naturally split into different smaller groups and go into flats.”

Another student says that entry to the parties in halls are supposed to only be for COVID-positive people. “The lack of smell and taste and constant coughing is a giveaway” that the virus is in the room with you, they said. 

Contrary to popular belief, the parties don’t celebrate getting the virus, explains Jasmine, a first year student at Newcastle, but they’re “making the most of a shit situation”. No one goes with the intention of getting the virus, but they know they’ll pick it up if they haven’t already. She says that when her entire flat tested positive, along with the flat next door, they joined forces for a massive blow-out. 

“I think the media presents [these parties] as a celebratory, self-congratulating mission, when really it’s just we’re in a space occupied entirely by young people and the majority of us are asymptomatic so we don’t feel ill,” she tells VICE UK. “It’s not like [the people heading to the parties] have to pass anyone or travel, because they all live next door.”

Some students say that they’re keeping the parties to themselves (i.e. within their bubbles) and keeping them as small as possible to mitigate the risk. Marine biology student Olly says that he was “fully aware and okay to get the virus, because I live in a student area and don't mix with anyone vulnerable”.

But Professor Sheena Cruickshank, an immunologist at the University of Manchester, says this isn’t so simple: “If you've got an active infection, your immune system is trying to eradicate the virus. If you go and start drinking and partying, you are impairing your ability to fight the virus.

Alcohol and recreational drugs can interfere with the function of the immune system, and lack of sleep is definitely very damaging for the immune system. So by doing that, you might be putting yourself at greater risk anyway. That might mean that you would be more vulnerable to infection lasting longer, and having a more severe response to it.”

Olly says that the parties are partly a reaction to the experience of going to university during a pandemic, and the ways the government has failed students. 

“We’ve wasted six months of our lives that we’ll never get back, and the way [the government has] used students as a scapegoat and attempted to gaslight us for the second wave was utterly deplorable. Also the lack of support they give us is obscene – I don't think they realise how much of a social occasion all of uni is.”

None of the students that VICE UK spoke to are under the pretence that a blow-out COVID party is sensible. The recent deaths of four Newcastle students have been linked to drugs, though one student says that it has led to more responsible use and even lowered the level of drug-taking at parties.

When asked for comment on their students’ parties, a Newcastle University spokesperson said: “Government guidelines are very clear that anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 or is experiencing any of the coronavirus symptoms, must self-isolate and not leave their home.”

“We take our responsibility for the health, safety and wellbeing of our students, our staff and local communities extremely seriously. Students who don’t follow the relevant safety measures to control the spread of COVID-19 are subject to University disciplinary procedures, ranging from a written caution through to expulsion.”

Ultimately, a mixture of frustration and boredom seems to be the underlying cause of these secretive parties. They’re symptomatic of the restlessness and frustration caused by the government’s disregard for student wellbeing, in which university students were sent to halls and locked down – in some cases, even fenced in – with little to no guidance, and having to pay tuition fees on top of it. “Making the most of a shit situation”, as Jasmine says, is one way to put it.

@bethanymrd