Not enough whack for the moles

As the UK prepares for new national restrictions, Jim Dickinson considers the implications for universities and students.

In May, Boris Johnson announced that rather than going back into a national lockdown, the government would instead slowly move to a “whack-a-mole” strategy of tackling local flare-ups of Covid-19 cases through increased testing capacity and targeted action in the event of an outbreak.

Five months on and that strategy looks like it’s in tatters. Last week Dido Harding, the head of NHS Test and Trace told a House of Commons Committee that it had failed to predict that a return to school would generate pupils with sniffles that might in turn place pressure on the testing system. You wonder whether she’s even heard of Freshers Flu.

This repeated failure to predict the public’s behaviour – caused in part by our determination as a country to not involve the public in the co-production of the modelling or the strategies – means we keep coming a cropper. New SAGE minutes on Friday again show the quality of assumptions going in on students. If anything, having underestimated the demand that schools would place on testing, we might have overestimated the demand that students will place on it – unless we stage some dramatic interventions fast.

Mutant moles

As of this morning, more than 13.5 million people in Britain are living under “local” lockdowns after last week’s new restrictions in Rhondda Cynon Taf, the north east, Lancashire and Merseyside. We’ve run out of whack for what is starting to look like giant, mutant moles – hence the heavily trailed national “circuit break” of new restrictions that we could see introduced this week both in England and Scotland – perfectly timed for the new term.

Like all the other rules that are introduced, curfews and social distancing make sense for people in established family households. But if you’re a new student and alone in a new city and you can’t mix and form friendships, there are huge risks. There’s no evidence that the committee of scientists advising the government on those risks are even close to understanding them. What we do have is ministers, universities and local communities all stressing the need to “crackdown” on student mixing – but little obvious consideration of the impact that will have on student mental health.

Trust me when I say this. So far “Covid authoritarianism” has been branded as such by a small group of strange middle-aged white men who call masks “nappies”. After another month of Covid marshals, universities deploying body cam footage to issue their own fines and air raid sirens telling students to stay indoors, outright rejection will shift into the mainstream.

It’s the unintended (but predictable) consequences that the sector has to keep an eye on. In Oslo and Bergen in Norway, curfews on bars imposed until midnight were so counterproductive among people in their twenties that within days politicians in both areas were begging for a relaxation because people just piled into houses after midnight instead. In the UK the student culture of “pre-drinks” means a 10 pm curfew will probably result in returning students never leaving each others’ houses in the first place. Are student living rooms better ventilated? Will students drink more, or less, if unsupervised? Will harassment and assault be easier, or harder, to spot? You get the picture.

Tiers before bedtime

When it comes to restrictions on higher education institutions, the official position in England is that at the level below a local or regional lockdown individual decisions can be made. If a university is experiencing a rise in infection rates (and a number already are), or there is an increase in infection rates in the local community, universities are supposed to work with their local Health Protection Teams and the Director of Public Health to determine the most effective measures that will help reduce transmission.

That can all result in moving through education restriction “tiers” – where Tier 1 is what we have now (blended learning) and Tier 4 is the majority of provision to be online, with buildings open for essential workers only.

But that system of working with local teams is in chaos too. Schools trying to work out which of their Tiers to move to are reporting being stuck on Public Health phone lines for hours on end – and hundreds of schools are now sending entire school years home.

Does that mean that the whole of higher education could move through the Tiers on a national basis as part of the “circuit break”? It would be daft to bet against it. Newcastle already has, and on Friday St Andrews even announced a voluntary lockdown for the weekend effective from 7 pm, asking students to “remain in rooms as much as possible”. If you haven’t finished modelling in detail a move through the Tiers yet, there’s no more important task this morning.

On Saturday night we learned that anyone breaking self-isolation rules would face a £10,000 fine. Let’s have a little think for a minute about what that will do to students’ motivation to get a test, or their honesty when they’re interacting with NHS tracing.

The press seems to frame students in lockdown as some kind of mild inconvenience, but as this Associate Dean from Portsmouth points out, if students are in lockdown without enough money to cover essentials, away from support networks and unable to work or return home, what happens next? A “stick and carrot” package to address those not self-isolating is all very well, but as has been throughout the pandemic, with no access to universal credit and only hardship funds to rely on, students are being given no access to the carrot – only the £10k stick.

A new UCU/Survation poll found only 35 per cent of people surveyed think universities should continue with face-to-face teaching. But students are still very unlikely to be banned from moving to university towns and cities in the coming weeks. Mix in the national pressure, trade union unrest and the general impracticality of face to face teaching, and it’s looking more and more likely that we’ll have over a million young people alone in student accommodation for most of the week having not made any friends.

Now they’re here, some universities are working with SUs to try to give students safe things to do. Others are being more… cautious. This piece on Inside Higher Ed sums up the debate well. What seems clear is that what universities do next for students who have moved to the city to study will determine not just the level of “drop out” this term – but whether we end up with an even worse student mental health epidemic than we already knew we had.

Put another way – universities are going to want to do all they can in the coming days to avoid misery for those that follow the rules, and misery for those that don’t.

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