What will students be allowed to do legally over Christmas?

Exciting times. The statutory instrument that MPs will vote on detailing the Christmas regime has been published, and naturally sets out how this will all work for students.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (All Tiers) (England) Regulations 2020 are notable for a few reasons. First up is that exceptions to the “gatherings” restrictions for us are now defined as “a course of study” or “essential life skills training” provided by a higher education provider, the latter of which is the sort of wording that leaves you wondering what the question was to which that was the answer.

There’s also “professional training that is working towards an external accreditation recognised by a professional body” which makes much more sense.

A note to students’ unions – the exceptions for charitable services, protests and support groups appear to be the same as previously, so if you were using them previously, you legally can still do so.

But generally, this narrowing of “education” does heavily restrict what can be organised on campus over Christmas for those left behind.

In the premises restrictions there’s a specific exemption for cafes or canteens at a higher education provider, where there is no practical alternative for staff and students at that institution to obtain food or drink, and alcohol is not served for consumption on the premises.

That doesn’t mean you can organise a straightforward Christmas lunch for everyone even in your halls, though. Mingling outside of your (Christmas/extended) household still isn’t allowed.

Of particular interest to students will be the rules on gatherings. Exception 18 is that a gathering is reasonably necessary to enable a student who is undertaking a higher education course on 3rd December 2020 to move on one occasion from their student household on or after that date, but before 8th February 2021 to one other household (“vacation household”) for the purposes of a vacation, or to return to their student household after the vacation.

For the purposes of the regs, a student who has moved to a “vacation household” is to be treated as a member of that household during the vacation (and not as a member of their student household) until the date on which they return to their student household.

They can only do this once, by the way. So a student who might usually split Christmas between two separated parents has to pick one to melt into the household of. They could visit the other one in that Christmas window, but that would use up one of that whole household’s two other households to Christmas bubble with.

There doesn’t appear to be anything in here about travel per se – so it looks like the “Student Travel Window” is only in guidance.

It also looks like legally students that remain in university towns and cities over Christmas could move in with each other, that would become their “vacation household”. If they don’t, it looks like students studying away from home stuck in university towns and cities over Christmas that don’t move into a different household for the period will only be able to bubble with two other households, as the rest of the country can in Christmas week (although – with apologies for the convolution – technically students living on their own over the break can bubble into an extended household with another household, and all three of those extended households can then bubble in Christmas week.)

More broadly, when DfE says:

This has been a particularly difficult year especially for students and we ask that special plans are created for students who stay on campus or alone in university areas over Christmas.

…it will be interesting to hear from DfE if it has any thoughts on what’s simultaneously legally permissible and “special” here – because it doesn’t feel like there’s a fat lot of shared space in that venn diagram. It certainly feels like what is possible will need some planning and facilitation from universities.

All of the above is England only of course – and any interrelationships with the rest of the UK are to come, presumably.

Crucially, the identification of Feb 8th is interesting. It’s almost as if the Westminster government is considering restricting some students from returning to their course until as late as the second week of February…

One other thought on this. Students studying away from home are basically being told to clear off home next week, and if the implication here about return is correct, many of them will be told not to come back for up to nine weeks.

When they got to university, they’ll have registered with a new GP. In any normal holiday the NHS says:

If you become unwell or need other medical treatment when you’re at home or not staying near your university GP, you can contact your nearest practice to ask for treatment.”

But it also says:

You can receive emergency treatment for 14 days. After that you will have to register as a temporary resident or permanent patient.”

For students studying away from home, I’ll go to my grave not understanding why it’s beyond us to create a sensible dual registration policy for students and GP services. The impact on disabled students in particular continues to be significant.

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