Student hell: Anger grows with thousands trapped in ‘vile’ conditions

28 September 2020, 22:19 | Updated: 29 September 2020, 09:48

Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

Students across the UK have been left "trapped" in university halls of residence as the government's lockdown messaging leaves thousands in self-isolation.

With more than 500 cases of Covid-19 being confirmed at roughly 30 UK universities, students are now facing the grim prospect of lonely quarantines.

Outbreaks have left thousands locked down on campuses across the country, some in "vile" conditions, due to a lack of government clarity on whether they can return home to self-isolate.

Many have already begun traipsing across Britain to start the new academic year without knowing what conditions they will encounter upon arrival.

And many will face the confusion of whether they would be breaking the law if they return to their family homes to self-isolate - leaving parents anxious and wondering whether they can get a refund on their children's expensive accommodation.

But the decision to continue sending students to universities - despite knowledge of widespread outbreaks - is 'ludicrous', Shadow Universities Minister Emma Hardy told LBC's Nick Ferrari.

Students have been left "trapped" in halls of residence while self-isolating
Students have been left "trapped" in halls of residence while self-isolating. Picture: PA

"One of the things we've been calling for is a pause of students returning to university at the moment because we haven't got the Test, Track and Trace set up effectively and it's not working," she said.

"It feels slightly ludicrous that at a time when we know something isnt working and we can see what's happening in Manchester Met, why keep sending students to university at this moment?

Explained: Are students shut in halls allowed to go home?

Watch: Students paying to be 'trapped in accommodation', says university union boss

"Surely just pause, sort out testing, allow them to access their learning online seems like a pragmatic solution."

"Admittedly not a long term solution, but it would get us over this difficult hurdle that we're facing."

On the students who are already at university, Ms Hardy said she had "sympathy" for them, and worries there will be a higher drop-our rate as students struggle to adjust to their new lives.

'Vile' conditions

One Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) student living at halls placed under a two-week quarantine revealed to LBC the "frustrating" lack of communication over the issue. He said his flat had been left facing a mound of rubbish which they were told to keep indoors.

Dan Johnson, a 20-year-old drama and contemporary theatre student, told LBC how an "absolutely vile" pile of bin bags had been left in the flat's storage room while they waited for a member of staff to collect them.

The Cambridge Halls resident said: "We were told that we can't take the bins down - we were told we have to double bag them and leave them in a cupboard for three days and then someone will come a collect them.

"The smell is absolutely vile - there's 10 of us living in this flat so the amount of bins we have to take out is quite a lot."

The first-year student and his flatmates have now spent over two weeks in lockdown inside their flats.

"We've already been quarantined for two weeks because our flatmate got corona," he said.

"We stuck it out, did the whole two weeks and we're supposed to be coming out today (Monday), but we've been put into another two weeks by the uni for this block."

Exclusive: MMU student reveals 'vile' conditions at Uni halls during lockdown

The legality of student lockdowns

The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Self-Isolation) (England) Regulations 2020 require people in England to quarantine for 14 days if they test positive for coronavirus or are contacted by the test and trace service - one must also tell the authorities who else is staying in the house with you.

They apply to anyone who does not have a reasonable excuse - such as seeking urgent medical assistance, attending court or attending the funeral of a close family member.

They also say one can self-isolate at home, in accommodation provided by the government or a council, in the home of a friend or family member, in bed and breakfast accommodation, or any other “suitable place”.

And herein lies the issue, the word "home" is only loosely defined.

For many students, they will consider home as their family residence and not their university halls, therefore until this is clarified many will feel entitled to return to their non-term-time addresses.

On Monday, Scottish students were told they can return home from university accommodation – as long as it’s on "a long-term basis".

Read more: Manchester police say enforcing Uni quarantine is 'not a policing issue'

Enforcing student lockdowns

It also remains unclear who will enforce the new restrictions. The police will have the power to enforce the measures, as well as people designated by Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

However, there has been no confirmation as to whether the vice-chancellors of universities have been given the authority to enforce the legislation.

It seems they are allowed to ask students to self-isolate and to remain on campus while doing so, but they are not allowed to force them to stay.

Therefore, any universities putting security guards in front of doors to keep students locked up could be breaking the law themselves.

A legal expert told LBC's Shelagh Fogarty of his concerns over the MMU students after they reported being met with security guards if they attempt to leave their halls of residence.

Consumer lawyer Gary Rycroft told Shelagh that, if true, the reports would represent a breach of the impacted students' human rights.

"I'd be very concerned if I heard that my child was in a hall of residence and there was police or guards on the door saying that they couldn't go in or our out. I think that that is a breach of their human rights.

"It's basically keeping them in prison and I don't think the university has a right to do that."

Adam Wagner, a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, said he was "dubious to say the least" about the possible legal basis of the student lockdown.

He tweeted: "If there are students (or parents of students) who are being detained in their accommodation blocks by security staff, I would suggest urgently requesting confirmation of the precise legal authority they think they are acting under."

Watch: 'Unis can't stop students going home' - consumer rights expert

Government 'expects' students to return home over Christmas

On Monday, university students were told they can "expect" to be allowed to return home over the Christmas period by Downing Street's official spokesman.

The No 10 official confirmed that students would be subject to the same rules as the rest of the UK population in the areas where they live.

When asked what Prime Minister Boris Johnson thought about the idea, the spokesman said: "We would expect all students to be able to go home at Christmas."

He added: "The rules for students are the same as those for the rest of the public. Universities can obviously issue advice to their students and I believe that's what has been happening in recent days."

It comes after care minister Helen Whately earlier on Monday refused to rule out the prospect of students being kept on campuses over the festive period.

“You’ve heard the secretary of state, he won’t rule anything out. But what we want is to see people being able to spend time with their families.

“Matt Hancock said you can’t rule that out. But we absolutely don’t want to. Christmas is months ahead so let’s do the right thing over the weeks and months ahead.”

Responding to the government's messaging on the issue, Labour urged ministers to "step up" testing capacity at universities to ensure students are able to return home safely over the festive period.

Some people are questioning the legality of student lockdowns
Some people are questioning the legality of student lockdowns. Picture: PA

Shadow education secretary Kate Green said: "Students will desperately want to be able to go home to be with friends and family at Christmas.

"And, of course, it's right that we all have a part to play in keeping distance and keeping safe.

"But the real key to this is getting the mass testing rolled out so that students can be tested, we can know if somebody is testing positive and make sure that they are isolated and don't travel.

"But it would mean the other students would be able to get back home for Christmas and that's why the government needs to step up too and make sure that that testing capacity is available."

It comes as students at the University of Exeter were asked not to meet indoors with anyone who is not part of their household for the next 14 days, beginning from Monday.

A spokeswoman said the only exceptions to the guidance will be for study, work, organised sport, or in an emergency situation where people are in danger.

"We will keep this measure under regular review. This does not mean that students cannot go out, but they should not socialise in other people's residences, and outside their current household they must observe the 'rule of six' and all other social distancing measures at all times," the university spokeswoman said in a statement.

The statement added: "We are seeing a continued rise in student Covid-19 cases and, although at this stage there is no evidence of wider community transmission, we are taking further action today in Exeter to control the spread of infection.

"We have agreed with Public Health England, Devon County Council and Exeter City Council that now is the time to ask students living in Exeter to take significant additional measures.

"This is necessary to avoid further local restrictions, of the type already seen in a number of other universities."

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