Coronavirus university rules explained: Are students shut in halls allowed to go home?

28 September 2020, 16:04 | Updated: 28 September 2020, 19:37

Several universities have locked down students
Several universities have locked down students. Picture: Getty

By Maddie Goodfellow

Students across the UK are being asked to self-isolate following Covid-19 outbreaks at several universities. But can students go home and what counts as their 'house'?

More than 500 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed across at least 30 UK universities as students move across the country to start the new academic year.

It comes amid calls from both parents and students for officials to guarantee "a safe journey home" for the festive period.

But what are the rules for students and what is the government's position?

Read more: James O'Brien questions: "Did universities allow students to return to get money in the bank?"

Read more: 'It's a breach of their human rights' - lawyer warns over students in quarantine

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

Read more: Which UK universities are locked down?

Does the law allow students to go home?

There are currently no official rules out saying that students who are not under self-isolation cannot leave their accommodation to return home now or at any other time.

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

The Scottish Government has updated its guidance on what those studying higher education can do if they wish to change household.

Students have been urged to remain living at university, but if they do decide to permanently go home, they have been asked to follow coronavirus self-isolating rules and not use public transport to get to classes.

They have also been reminded that it is an ‘offence’ to undertake short stays without a ‘reasonable’ excuse.

Scottish Higher Education Minister Richard Lochhead said students could visit home for "wellbeing reasons", such as difficulties with their mental health.

They can also change their permanent residence if they are unhappy with student halls, he said.

Who counts as a 'house'?

Student shave now been told that they are a "separate household" to their parents and therefore should not return home.

They have been told that the laws on indoor meetings apply to “even mum and dad”.

However meetings between two households of up to six people are still allowed outdoors and in pubs, and there are exceptions on home visits for carers.

What have the police said?

A Greater Manchester Police spokesperson told LBC it is "not a policing issue" if students decide to leave the quarantined blocks and officers will not make any attempt to enforce the restrictions imposed on them on Friday evening.

Instead, the force said it was down to Manchester Metropolitan University to enforce the new measures.

A force spokesperson said: "GMP is aware that a number of MMU students have been advised to self-isolate and understand that this situation provides a number of challenges for all involved, including students, parents and the university itself.

"However, this is not a policing issue and it is therefore not the position of GMP to prevent students from leaving the university or their halls of residence.

"As such, this is being managed by the universities themselves under the guidance of public health.

"Officers were patrolling in the area of the campus but no incidents or reports of any breaches was received over the weekend.

"We will continue to work with MMU and local authorities to engage with students and offer advice surrounding the re-opening of universities and staying safe in the current climate, and will always use the 4 Es approach of engage, explain and encourage before any enforcement action is taken.”

What is the government stance?

The Department for Education said the government was working closely with universities in England to ensure they were prepared for the return of students.

A spokesman said: "Students should follow the latest health advice, just like the wider public, which means they should stay at university in the event that they have symptoms; have to isolate; there are additional restrictions imposed locally; or there is an outbreak on campus or in their accommodation."

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said students were "not to blame" for coronavirus outbreaks but backed universities taking disciplinary action as a "last resort" against those who broke the rules.

Universities UK, which represents 139 institutions, said the health and wellbeing of students, staff and local communities was the first priority for universities, which would continue to follow government guidance.

No10 said today that it was not expected that students would be barred from returning home over Christmas.

What might happen over Christmas?

Care minister Helen Whately said she “absolutely hopes” that students will be able to see their families over the festive period.

However, she implied there was a chance they may have to stay at university if the spread of coronavirus is not brought under control.

Asked if students will be able to go home for Christmas, Ms Whately told Sky News: “I absolutely hope so. I know that as a student at the moment — particularly if you are in a university where there is an outbreak and you’re being told to self-isolate — that is not the student experience you were looking forward to.”

She added: “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.”

Culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, said it would only be possible for students to return to their family during the Christmas if the country follows existing guidance.

He said: “I very much want students to be able to go home at Christmas, and if we all pull together and observe these new rules, we follow the guidance, then we will be able to get to a point where that should be possible.”

Labour has asked Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to “ensure that every student has access to testing to allow a safe journey home” for Christmas.

Nicola Sturgeon said: "Don't assume that the rules in place now for home visits will still apply at Christmas.

"We review the rules every three weeks and that's why we cannot provide specific guidance for Christmas right now because that will of course depend on the course of the pandemic but I want to be very clear that it is absolutely our priority to make sure students can go home for Christmas as I know everybody will want to do."

What are the other issues for students?

Money

Dominic Waddell, 21, a first-year filmmaking student, said: "I have heard people mentioning claims of false imprisonment.

"There's a great deal of anger, people aren't very happy with how the university's run it, considering we're the ones that allow them to keep running because we're the ones that give them this money and now they're locking us in the homes we're paying for so it's very frustrating."

Questions have also been asked about why universities would plan for students to return only to tell them they must learn remotely from home - especially with fees and rent to pay.

Mental health

Dominic also said: "People are trying to make the most of it, playing board games and watching TV with your flatmates but I don't really see how long we can keep that up with all these new people that you barely know - it's going to be pretty difficult to keep a lifted spirit."

A student who only gave her first name as Paradee left St Andrews just before the lockdown. She told LBC that she had left her campus days before it was locked down, and couldn't work out how universities are justifying keeping students locked in their halls.

She said that that universities are "not really taking into account student's mental health at all" by implementing this lockdown with many saying they are struggling to cope.

Student minds say anyone finding the start of university hard can text #StudentSpace to get 24 hour text support from a trained volunteer by texting 'STUDENT' to 85258 or call 0300 123 3393.

Legal issues

Lawyers at a chambers which specialises in human rights and civil liberties have also questioned the legality of security staff enforcing the 14-day isolation of 1,700 students at two accommodation blocks in the city.

A consumer lawyer has told LBC he thinks some students at Manchester Metropolitan University may have had their human rights breached after a tough lockdown has been enforced.

Meanwhile police said enforcing the lockdown is not a matter for them.

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 so-far unverified 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."

His colleague, fellow barrister Rabah Kherbane, tweeted: "The idea of an immediate notice, large-scale effective imprisonment of first-year students, with 24-hour enforcement by accommodation security, is slightly surreal. The LA (local authority) has not clarified powers/conditions met.

"@ManMetUni please inform your students they can seek legal advice."