The government should consider delaying the start of some university terms until mass testing is available on campuses, Labour has said, as thousands of students were confined to their halls of residence following outbreaks.
In a letter to the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, his Labour shadow, Kate Green, said: “The key to students staying safe on campus is testing… Despite the government’s inaction, universities like Leicester and Cambridge are developing their own testing capacity. What steps is your department taking to ensure that every university that wishes to do so is able to deliver this capacity on their campus? And what progress is the government making to ensure there is sufficient testing capacity in university communities to ensure those who have symptoms can be tested quickly?”
At Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), 1,700 students told to quarantine for a fortnight are banned from leaving their flats to get a test, even though there is a walk-in centre less than a mile away.
At least one firm has offered to act pro bono for MMU students wanting to challenge the legality of their quarantine, with lawyers noting that in the community those with symptoms are allowed to leave their homes to get tests.
Larissa Kennedy, president of the National Union of Students, warned: “It is completely unacceptable – and potentially unlawful – for students to be subject to different rules than everyone else. This will only make public health guidance even more confusing and harder to follow.”
At MMU’s Cambridge halls of residence on Sunday, students had ignored orders from the university to take down signs they had put up in their windows using Post-it notes. “Fuck Boris with a cactus” read one; “9k 4 what?” read another, referencing student fees.
Outside, supermarket delivery vans delivered crates of food and drink at a social distance. One mask-wearing mother pulled up in a car filled with supplies for her son, including weights – “He can’t get to the gym” – and a big screen for gaming.
“I’ll tell you what’s going on here,” shouted one young man out of his kitchen window. “It’s a two-week piss-up. We’ve just had a delivery of 200 cans of lager. It’s Sheffield United versus Leeds on the telly later and it’s going to get messy.”
Four out of 10 students in his flat have tested positive, with a further two receiving “inconclusive” results. “We’re just assuming we’ve all got it,” said one of his flatmates. When the quarantine was announced on Friday evening, MMU said 127 students had tested positive, with more showing symptoms.
On the Birley campus nearby, one 19-year-old complained at having to stay indoors for a fortnight despite already completing his own quarantine period last week following a positive test shortly after arriving on 7 September.
“My flat have all recently finished our self-isolation periods as all eight of us tested positive for coronavirus and now we’re unable to leave for a further two weeks. We had an email yesterday saying that no one was allowed to leave for coronavirus testing,” he said.
The message from MMU said: “We appreciate some of you may need to take a Covid-19 test. Unfortunately, due to the self-isolation you will not be permitted to travel to the local testing centre on Denmark Road [less than a mile away].
“We are working with the local health services to put another testing system in place and will update you as soon as this is confirmed.”
Levins Solicitors said it would help quarantined students. “To the MMU students at Birley campus and Cambridge halls: get in touch and we will do our best to help, pro bono,” the firm tweeted.
Labour’s Kate Green suggested a “pause” for those universities where students have yet to arrive for freshers’ week. “Given the virus’s rapid progress, and the concerning scenes we have seen already, will the government now consider a delay to the start of term or a pause in the migration for universities where term has not yet begun to allow improvements in testing capacity and remote learning provision?” she asked.
In Birmingham on Saturday night, police patrolled student accommodation following reports of parties in halls during the week.
On Thursday the accommodation manager at the University of Birmingham wrote to students in halls, warning them that the university would call the police to break up illegal parties.
The letter also warned that: “Anyone found to be part of a gathering of more than six people, or visiting a flat other than their own, will automatically be referred to the university’s conduct process, which could ultimately result in their permanent withdrawal from the university. They will also be instructed to leave their accommodation with immediate effect.”
The University and College Union, which represents lecturers and support staff, said the measure showed “the university is unable to control the behaviour of a significant number of its students in campus accommodation”.
The NUS also called for online learning to be the default and for functioning test and trace: “NUS has long called for online learning to be the default and the government must urgently invest in digital infrastructure and tackle digital poverty so all students can continue to access their education remotely. We also need them to get a functional test-and-trace system in place on campuses and adequate funding to tackle the student mental health crisis,” said Kennedy, the union president.