Student-specific lockdowns: cruel or justified?

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In mid-September, the North East was dealt a serious blow with the announcement of new local restrictions preventing households mixing. The news came just a couple weeks before the start of Durham’s new academic year. And with cases still rising in County Durham, are we now headed towards more student-targeted restrictions, as we’ve seen at Scottish universities?

We’ve watched and waited anxiously as universities including Edinburgh and St Andrew’s introduced these student-specific lockdowns, banning them from pubs and restaurants and restricting them to their immediate household within their halls of residence. The situation is no better in other parts of the UK, with students being put on lockdown in their halls at Manchester Metropolitan. Reports have emerged of aggressive campus patrols literally preventing students from leaving their accommodation blocks.

This new academic year is quickly descending into an Orwellian nightmare.

Students must accept responsibility for the spike in COVID cases in these university towns. But the underlying demonisation of students which accompanies these restrictions only alienates a group that has already suffered huge sacrifices to their education and well-being throughout the pandemic.

For the new intake of first years in many universities, this new academic year is quickly descending into an Orwellian nightmare, arriving at university only to be almost immediately placed on lockdown in their halls. I’m writing from the relative comfort of my second-year student house, where I live with five housemates whom I find largely pretty tolerable. But what about the neglected first years stuck in soulless accommodation blocks with strangers they’ve known for just a few weeks?

We’ve been sold a lie about what this new academic year would entail.

There has been continuous and blatant disregard for student welfare and mental health during the pandemic. This could not have been made clearer than in Matt Hancock’s recent announcement that he “couldn’t rule out students” remaining in lockdown over Christmas. In the reports coming from students in lockdown at Manchester Metropolitan (including security guards posted on every exit, and “care packages” consisting of Pot Noodles), the word that most frequently crops up to describe their situation is “neglect”. It is simply appalling that no one has publicly acknowledged how damaging this will be to these students’ mental health, at a time in their lives already rife with anxiety.

The narrative around university COVID-spikes is dominated by reports of illegal house parties (such as one at St Andrew’s which resulted in 40 students in self-isolation). But the reality is much more complex: couples living in separate households, friends separated for months over lockdown finally able to reunite, freshers’ desperate to make new friends (an indispensable part of their university experience).

Increasingly, it feels like we’ve been sold a lie about what this new academic year would entail. A-level students were encouraged to apply to halls of residence, with the promise of “blended learning” including some face-to-face teaching. Many of us are only now realising how little teaching will actually be delivered in person this year, and for first-year students this may have been the difference between attending university at all and deferring the year.

The government’s priorities are clear, and student welfare comes at the very bottom of the list.

The COVID spikes in university towns should neither come as a surprise to the government. They must accept a significant portion of the blame for the chaotic environment in which universities have had to reopen, with a dysfunctional track-and-trace system and over-subscribed accommodation due to the A-levels disaster.

At this point, the government’s priorities are clear, and student welfare comes at the very bottom of the list. In September, they considered closing pubs to allow schools to reopen. Now they’re telling university students to stay away so that the pubs don’t have to close.

Students must follow the rules just like everyone else. But more care must be taken to prevent a mental health crisis and soaring drop-out rates, the inevitable result of treating students as, at best, a burden to society, and at worst as inmates on parole.

Feature image by Firesam! Available via Flickr.

One thought on “Student-specific lockdowns: cruel or justified?

  • Such a well written piece. I agree with the sentiments expressed. Sadly university students are being sacrificed on the altar of Mammon. Pubs should have stayed shut and students stayed at home, undergoing online tutoring.

    Reply

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