By Max Kendix
The experience has become so familiar that we could do it in our sleep. Queue up, “yes I’ve switched off Test and Trace, no I haven’t got symptoms”, walk to the green booth, open the packet, swab nose and mouth, into and out the tube, drip onto the test, into the bag, write your campus code and time, into the pile and pray. This has been the Durham student’s routine since the University’s Lateral Flow Test programme was first opened up in November 2020, a whole 15 months ago.
Getting your LFT feels engrained into the Durham psyche. It’s on our administrative to-do list whenever we think about events or college bar visits. Some students may read this with a smirk, remembering the time they flashed an old QR code and got away with it, or even the rule-breakers who put others at risk with their copied and pasted NHS PCR texts with changed dates. Perhaps this attitude helped us become the area with the highest Covid-19 rate in the country last summer.
So when students read now that the University plans to scrap compulsory checks by the end of the month, and along with it most LFT sites, they may just feel a sense of emptiness. Surely not? No massive marquee on Palace Green and the Racecourse? No mental maths of what counts as ‘in the last 48 hours’?
If you didn’t know already, I will break it to you now. Covid-19, that virus, for many our entire University experience, seems to be very nearly gone. I say this with some reticence, for a new deadly strain will surely land on our doorstep any day now. But the legal rules on self-isolation run out on 24th March, and the Prime Minister has said he plans to scrap them a full month earlier than that. While the University’s scrapping of LFT checks might feel premature, it’s actually about right.
The end of the University’s strange mask policy does not accompany the decision. Face coverings are still compulsory in all University buildings, but not anywhere else, especially not in the City’s packed pubs and nightclubs.
What’s slightly funny is that really, though the University words it as compulsory, it just isn’t, and certainly not in the legal way we are used to. The latest official guidance for Higher Education settings states, “face coverings are no longer advised for students, staff and visitors” in teaching settings and communal areas.
Not only is adherence voluntary, but the guidance explicitly says that “no student should be denied education on the grounds that they are, or are not, wearing a face covering”. Hence the noticeable absence of Covid marshals around the library, grunting at seated, socially-distanced students to mask up.
But the remaining Covid-related restrictions don’t particularly bother most students. They are a mild inconvenience that we are well used to. Some students probably wouldn’t mind wearing masks in lectures forever. But for at least one alumnus, who has spent millions of his own money in improving extra-curricular opportunities, particularly for Collingwood students, the restrictions proved the last straw.
We revealed on Thursday that donor, Mark Hillery, has cut all ties with the University, offering a scathing rebuke of Durham’s remaining restrictions. After decades of dedication and relationships built with students and staff here, it can’t have been a decision taken lightly. In October, the University quietly revealed it had spent around £7.5million on direct costs associated with the Covid-19 response since the beginning of the pandemic.
It is a cosmic irony, then, that it is almost exactly the same amount that Hillery has gifted to the University over recent years. The LFT scheme may come and go, and the next generations of students may never know it existed, but one wonders if the financial and reputational hit Durham has faced during the pandemic will reverberate down the years.
Image: Mark Norton