Can students pop home at the weekend?

A while ago now we looked at some of the difficulties there might be in law in defining a “household” which are easier to solve in guidance but harder if you’re about to fine someone.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

For now let’s assume a “household” is as is defined in the various versions of guidance – broadly, the group of people you live with and share facilities with.

Things have intensified a little on inter-household mixing. In the debate that ensued after announcing the new “six months long” restrictions, PM Bioris Johnson said:

The most important thing is that the students who are now back at university in large numbers should, like everybody else, follow the guidelines… and it’s also important that when there are outbreaks in universities that students should not be going home to infect their older relatives”.

As we’ve noted before, he may not have noticed the commuters that do this every day and the hybrids who do this every weekend.

In Northern Ireland Arlene Foster has a higher education system where it’s more obvious that a significant number of students go home every weekend, so much so that she’s threatening to stop them from being able to unless things improve.

In Scotland Nicola Sturgeon has announced a ban on indoor visits between households until further notice. We’ve not seen the (secondary) legislation yet but the guidance does make clear that “you must not make indoor social visits to other households”.

And in England The Times is reporting that Chris Whitty is understood to have said that England will to have to follow Scotland in imposing a ban on visiting between households.

Already in local lockdown areas (in England for now) you can’t “host people you do not live with in your home or garden”. Similar applies in local lockdown areas in Wales.

Generally in these areas it’s clear that students can form new households, because education tends to be singled out as an exemption. But there are wider issues.

  • It looks like a student studying and living in a local lockdown area in England/Wales or generally in Scotland that lives elsewhere can pop home at the weekend.
  • But can a student studying and living in an unrestricted area pop home at the weekend where that “home” is in a local lockdown area in England/Wales or generally in Scotland?
  • And can a student studying in a local lockdown area in England/Wales or generally in Scotland pop home at the weekend where that “home” is in a local lockdown area in England/Wales or generally in Scotland?

We need to know because:

  • There’s a hell of a lot of “hybrid” students who do this regularly
  • There may be a major transmission risk
  • There may also be significant risks to trapping students in their student accommodation until December
  • We need our guidance to students on this to be accurate
  • And if the restrictions are still on in December, can they even “pop home” for Christmas?

Legally this may come down again to the definition of “household” and whether – as is the case for election purposes – students actually have two households.

But surely this is about behaviour, risk management, and risk mitigation as much as it’s about legality and enforcement. Which of the two versions here would be better?

As for Christmas, by the way – there is no way on earth that any rules around household visits won’t be relaxed in time for Christmas Day. But if they do apply to students, don’t expect anyone in government to remember that term may well end in early December.

And one other thing – this iQ students/Parker house in Dundee story. There all 500 residents at Parker House in Dundee have been asked by Public Health officials to quarantine until contact tracing is complete. Rare? While some are doing excellent work, I’m getting reports from across the country of some PBSA operators who are not being clear about what a “household” is, some having different definitions based on who you speak to, and some not even demarcating with signage let alone attempting enforcement. Guess how public health officials will respond to that?

I’ve also heard that some are saying that their building is “one big household”. Not only will that not wash if they all try to go to the pub together (“we’re all in the same household, officer”), it’s a recipe for having hundreds of students locked down at once. I’d be crawling all over the providers in my city today if I was a university, just to check.

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