Exeter students get a soft lockdown

For the next 14 days, students who live in Exeter are being asked to not to meet indoors with anyone who is not part of their household.

In what’s being dubbed a “soft lockdown” by the local press, University of Exeter students living within the city (so we’re excluding UoE students in Cornwall) are effectively being asked to voluntarily pretend they’re in one of the English local lockdown areas in terms of visiting other households:

We are seeing a continued rise in student Covid-19 cases and, although at this stage there is no evidence of wider community transmission, we are taking further action today in Exeter to control the spread of infection. We have agreed with Public Health England, Devon County Council and Exeter City Council that now is the time to ask students living in Exeter to take significant additional measures. This is necessary to avoid further local restrictions, of the type already seen in a number of other universities.

So, for the next 14 days, beginning today, Monday 28 September, we are asking students who live in Exeter not to meet indoors with anyone who is not part of their household. The only exceptions to this are for study, work, organised sport, or in an emergency situation where people are in danger. We will keep this measure under regular review. This does not mean that students cannot go out, but they should not socialise in other people’s residences, and outside their current household they must observe the Rule of Six and all other social distancing measures at all times.

There’s nothing in the statement to suggest that PGRs and PGTs are excluded, and this is very much targeted at UoE students – there’s nothing to suggest that HE students enrolled at Exeter College are included, for example.

Why this and why now? The statement on Facebook reveals that of the 116 cases reported in Devon over the past 7 days, 67 are in Exeter and over half of those are attributable to the university. As a result Virginia Pearson, the Director of Public Health Devon has taken some highly targeted action:

Overall, the county of Devon still has relatively low case numbers in comparison with many other counties. But like many university cities, the city of Exeter has seen a sharp rise in the number of cases since the start of the university term, now accounting for more than half of the county’s total 116 cases.

These cases are contained – they remain predominantly in the student population and centred around a small number of households in a small area of the city – and we see no evidence at this stage of the infection spreading within the community.

Our analysis indicates that infection is passing between individuals largely in social and residential settings rather than in educational settings, which is why the university is asking students not to meet indoors with anyone other than those in their households for the next 14 days, except in some circumstances.

What’s extraordinary is that this concept of a “soft lockdown” – first seen in Scotland (albeit with some slightly different “suggestions”) and now in Exeter, that specifically treats students differently to citizens – has never once appeared as a suggested strategy in any bit of guidance either to universities or public health officials.

There are some quite large playbooks. There’s the guidance specifically on higher education that contains a significant section on responding to local outbreaks. There’s what the government calls the Covid-19 “contain framework” – a “guide for local decision-makers”. And there’s the published “Local Outbreak Management Plan” for Devon that is supposed to provide an outline for managing coronavirus outbreaks in Devon to protect residents and support the most vulnerable, and set out measures to prevent further outbreaks as well as action to respond rapidly to outbreaks to limit further spread.

None of these documents suggests, proposes or lists as an option to single out a particular section of a community and ask them to take more drastic steps than the rest of the community. That’s a problem – because just as with the debate over new restrictions not being debated in Parliament, the public (or in this case students) can’t have a proper debate about any downsides, or see evidence that should have triggered this as a strategy. Crucially, it treats students like children rather than citizen-participants.

It is not at all clear that the huge potential downsides – blame allocation, town gown relations, already isolated students prevented from seeing friends – have been factored in. Let’s assume that in two weeks if community transmission is up amongst non students that the local DPH won’t be saying “and now I’d like Exeter’s long term residents to not visit others but students – off you go”.

It’s also probably a fair guess that this is also another case where the proposed-by-SAGE “national, coordinated outbreak response strategy” for HE hasn’t kicked in.

This is just a voluntary exercise, and the university has stressed some of its wider measures on welfare, wellbeing and support for self-isolation. But we might also assume that the students this is aimed at may well ignore it, and the ones already suffering will become more isolated still. And as for relations with the town, here are some of the comments underneath the piece on DevonLive so far:

Hard lock down and immediate jail sentence for anyone breaking the rule of 6 or failing to isolate, I’d report anyone I knew, I’m not risking my livlihood or elderly grandparents lives. But in all honesty I’d bounce them up and down the street first before dragging them down to the police station

They can’t get together on campus but they can roam the town infecting Exeter folk. They can still go to bars and restaurants and they won’t stick to the rule of six so just let them take over the city.

Send them home. They won’t stick to it so let their local authorities deal with it for gods sake.”

Who knows how the decision was reached, or how effective it will be. What we do know is that the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) sub committee of SAGE has previously warned about measures that could be seen as inequitable where they “adversely affecting specific groups of people in an unjust manner”. They were talking mainly about measures that might be seen to target BAME communities in the paper, but the potential read across is obvious:

There is the danger of a cycle of local interventions in certain parts of the country as individuals in BAME and socio-economically disadvantaged groups susceptible to coronavirus find themselves under re-introduced local restrictions. These communities may lack the resources to have restrictions lifted due to structural discrimination which keeps them locked into economic sectors from which there is no potential for furlough and in crowded accommodation in which social distancing is impossible. Social stigmatisation will trigger discrimination.”

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