University students must be allowed to return home to their families at Christmas, Labour has said. It comes amid fears that coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreaks could keep young people in halls when term ends.
Scared and confused
Meanwhile, thousands of students are currently confined to their rooms following a surge in cases at institutions including Glasgow, Manchester Metropolitan and Edinburgh Napier.
Students at Manchester Metropolitan University described being scared and confused as their accommodation was locked down without warning.
Hundreds of students at the university have been told to stay in their rooms for 14 days after 127 tested positive for coronavirus. But students at the Birley campus described confusion as security staff arrived to enforce the lockdown on Friday 25 September, before many of them had received any official communication from the university to tell them what was happening.
Megan Tingey, a 19-year-old criminology student, said police also turned up outside her Birley Vine accommodation. She told the PA news agency:
It was quite scary and confusing.
A police van turned up and there were police outside the gate, quite a lot of them just walking around looking at everyone, especially because we didn’t know what was going on.
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No one’s really told us much and then the police turn up as well with security outside – it’s a really, really difficult situation.
Many students were left wondering how they would stock their shelves as they were not allowed to go out to buy food.
According to Manchester Evening News, 1,700 students have been locked down at the Birley campus and Cambridge Halls. PA has contacted the university for comment.
Home for Christmas
Health secretary Matt Hancock last week declined to rule out asking students to stay on campus over Christmas, after government scientific adviser Mark Walport said the measure may be needed to stop the virus spreading to older relatives.
Shadow education secretary Kate Green has written to Gavin Williamson, urging him to “promise” students that such restrictions will not be imposed.
She said it would be “deeply unfair to see students forced to remain in their student accommodation”. She also asked Williamson to “work with universities to ensure every student has access to testing to allow a safe journey home” for Christmas.
Green also asked the education secretary to consider a delay to the start of term or a “pause in migration” for universities where term has not yet begun, to allow improvements in testing capacity and remote learning provisions.
In a statement, she said:
Universities have done all they can to prepare for students’ safe return, but the Government has again let young people down.
It is unthinkable that students will be locked in their rooms and unable to return home to spend Christmas with their families. The Government must promise that this will not happen, and work with universities to enable every student to access tests so that they can travel home safely…
Gavin Williamson must urgently come to Parliament and set out how he will resolve the critical situation in our universities that is causing such anxiety for families across the country.
A Department for Education spokesperson said:
The Government is working closely with universities to ensure they are well prepared for the return of students, and we have published guidance to help them keep students and staff as safe as possible.
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.
We will continue monitoring the situation very closely and follow Public Health England advice, adapting policies to best support students and providers.
Glasgow University said on 26 September that it will refund all students in halls of residence one month’s rent, along with a £50 payment for food, after the outbreak of cases.
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