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UK students locked down in university dorms as coronavirus cases rise

Posted September 28, 2020 12:44 p.m. EDT

— Thousands of students across the UK have been forced into isolation within weeks of arriving for the start of the academic year after mass coronavirus outbreaks were confirmed at university campuses.

Officials linked the hundreds of confirmed cases to illicit parties, but students said it was unfair to blame them when they had received little support from their schools or the government.

Students in Scotland were banned from visiting pubs, bars and restaurants over the weekend and were told there must be no parties or socializing outside their households.

Around 1,700 students at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) in northern England were ordered to self-isolate or risk facing "disciplinary action" after 127 Covid-19 cases were confirmed on campus, according to the university and local authorities.

A statement from Manchester City Council on Friday said a decision had been taken with the university and Public Health England to "implement a local lockdown for student accommodation at the Birley campus and Cambridge Halls" in a bid to "stop the transmission of the virus among students and prevent it getting into the wider community."

Students living in two main dorms were asked via email on Friday night to self-isolate in their residences for 14 days regardless of whether or not they have symptoms.

Levins Solicitors, a law firm representing nine students, said it had seen recordings showing security and accommodation staff stopping students from leaving.

After lawyers raised questions over the legality of enforcing the quarantine, MMU said in a statement: "We are unable to prevent our students from leaving the halls, but our students are bright young adults and we trust that they will do the right thing."

It said it was "developing an additional package of care and financial support to assist students." The university also apologized after reports of students being told via email to remove protest signs from their windows. It said the email "didn't reflect the University's view" and it respected "the rights of students to express themselves," although it said "the posters must not break the law or they'll have to be removed."

Greater Manchester Police said no unlawful posters had been reported.

The University of Manchester, another institution based in the city, said in a statement that it had implemented "robust" safety measures on campus, including two-meter social distancing, mandatory face coverings and cleaning stations. Lectures have been moved online, although the campus will still be used for small group teaching, practical classes and study space. But it said "we are still likely to see cases of Covid-19."

Lauren Petters, a second-year politics student at the university, told CNN that she already knew of five or six student houses that were self-isolating, including her own house of six people, three of whom have tested positive.

"I've had quite a severe reaction to it and I know other people that have; I've been in and out of a fever, and struggling to breathe. It's not anything like a cold," said the 19-year-old.

She said they had "not had any kind of advice or any kind of help" and she had not heard from her university in the two or three weeks since she had returned to the city after the summer vacation from her home on the outskirts of Birmingham.

The university said in its statement that students "have been sent regular messages" and it had web pages in place with guidance.

Petters said she was thinking of going home, despite having paid for off-campus accommodation in Manchester, and that she felt even more sorry for first-year students in university accommodation. "They don't have any fresh air, they're in their bedrooms, they don't know the people they're living with, and they're not allowed to leave."

Petters said she had been told her lectures will be online and now expects her smaller seminars will be, too. Even if they weren't, she said, she wouldn't feel comfortable going to them.

"It's just an immense amount of pressure being away from home and then going through something like this without much of a support network," she added.

The UK reported a record 6,874 new daily Covid-19 cases on Friday, according to government data. It has now confirmed 437,520 cases and 42,007 deaths, per the Johns Hopkins University tally.

Evidence suggests young people are driving the second wave in cases in Europe, but it is beginning to spread into older and more vulnerable populations. Figures released by the government earlier this month showed that the weekly incidence per 100,000 people was highest among 20- to 29-year-olds and rising.

The national University and College Union's general secretary Jo Grady told CNN in a statement: "Students must be allowed to safely return home if they wish to and without fear of financial penalty for leaving their student accommodation.

"Health and safety should have been the number one concern.

"There simply was not enough time spent preparing for this inevitable crisis. This is a crisis that needs swift action and leadership. So far, we have seen no evidence of either."

The union said earlier this month that it was "totally unacceptable" for Health Secretary Matt Hancock to try to shift blame on to students for any second wave after he told the BBC he was concerned about the behavior of young people returning to university.

"It just is so frustrating," added Petters. "Everything I've been through, when they turn it around and say that students aren't listening to, they're breaking the rules, that's why this is happening to them, and I just feel like it's creating this lack of sympathy for all these students that are essentially imprisoned.

"This isn't our fault. Yeah, probably 20% of it is students being students and being stupid, but I would say a massive part of it is the government and then they turn around and blame us."

Petters said the pubs and bars had been packed in Fallowfield, the student area where she lives.

"For students, it costs two pounds ($2.50) to have a meal in some of the student bars, which is cheaper than if you went to the shops and bought the ingredients, so as a student, you're going to go for the cheapest option.

"I wasn't breaking any rules but I was going out for food, I went to the pub and we don't know exactly how any of us got it, but it wasn't by being reckless.

"I think it's a bit small-minded to suggest that that what's caused the problem is students being stupid; it's just students being too close together and it's going to happen."

The UK government has suggested students could be forced to stay at university for the Christmas vacation period. "I couldn't imagine anything worse," said Petters.

At Glasgow University in Scotland, and 600 students were told to isolate last Wednesday and at least 172 cases have been confirmed.

A university spokesperson said that number "will definitely have gone up" and said officials believe the outbreak may have begun as a result of unauthorized parties during start of term celebrations known as Freshers' Week.

More than 500 students at Scotland's Abertey and Aberdeen universities have also been forced to quarantine, with local health boards investigating the outbreaks.

The principal of Scotland's University of St Andrews, one of the UK's most elite schools and Prince William's alma mater, asked students to go into voluntary lockdown last Friday following an uptick in cases "all linked" to one party during Freshers' Week that "broke the law," he said.

Students in shared accommodation in Scotland were told not to mix with other households and all students -- not just those living on campus -- were banned from visiting bars, restaurants and cafes over the weekend following the mass outbreaks.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said that although Scotland "will see campus cases continue to rise in the days to come" these measures "can help stem that flow."

But she said students were not to blame for the spread of Covid-19 in Scotland.

"I know some of you feel as if you're being blamed for the spread of Covid right now, but that's not the case. You don't deserve to be facing this, nobody deserves to be facing this right now, and it's not your fault," she said at the government's daily briefing Friday.

Sturgeon said she supported universities taking disciplinary action against students who breach these guidelines "as a last resort."

Large indoor gatherings are now an offense in Scotland, and Chief Constable Iain Thomas Livingstone made it clear at the briefing that parties will not be tolerated: "Where officers encounter blatant, willful, persistent breaches, we will act decisively. We will enforce the law."

Scotland reported a record number of daily cases on Saturday, at 714.

A spokesperson for Glasgow University told CNN in a statement that it had provided a package of support for students in its residences: "This includes a month rent free and £50 ($64) for every single one of the 2,800 students in our residences. We have provided hot food and emergency food bags along with additional towels and bedding for those who need these. We have also offered mental health support and access to counseling."

All 2,500 students at Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne, Switzerland's most prestigious hospitality school, are quarantining following a "major outbreak" in infection, according to the Vaud Canton regional authority on Wednesday.

And tens of thousands of cases have been reported at universities across the United States.

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