Why are we seeing Covid case peaks in student areas outside of term time?

Student areas are at the forefront of the coming wave of Covid-19. But once again they are not to blame for a series of policy errors that led us here.

David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe

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Case rates are rising in student areas like Durham city centre, Hyde Park, Selly Oak, North Jesmond, and Cotham. After a January wave that seemed largely to avoid large concentrations of students, a pattern similar to last October has returned.

In terms of the overall sum of Covid cases in England, we’re back at around the place we were in late September 2020. The student area effect is there, but is less pronounced than last year.

[Graph from Wonkhe’s Covid Data Dashboard]

So what is going on?

The story is not one of student misbehaviour. Young people, unvaccinated, and desperate to work and to socialise after a difficult year, are the source of case rises all over the country.

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Though for the majority of undergraduate students term time is over, it is common in every year for students to remain at their termtime addresses over the summer. Postgraduates continue to study, perhaps more are on campus than usual to catch up on lost lab and library time. Many professional courses run over the summer. This year, perhaps more than ever given the events of the last 15 months, students are keen to spend time with friends and to work in the newly reopened hospitality sector.

Outside of the clinically vulnerable, few young people have been vaccinated. Though the jabs don’t grant immunity to Covid-19, even one injection offers significant protection against the virus. However, a vaccination does not stop you from spreading the virus – the relaxation of social distancing measures and the reopening of pubs, bars, and restaurants puts young people at a particular risk.

In other words, the peaks in case rates in student areas are just peaks in the proportion of young people in student areas.

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Clearly in something as messy and as regionally focused as a virus we are not going to see a stunning correlation between the proportion of young people and the number of cases – but the trend is definitely there.

Though university testing sites will largely close at the end of the month, student testing availability and expectation remains high (even if a declining number are engaging with testing).Young people are more likely to be low paid and precariously employed, struggling to make an increasingly inadequate loan stretch into the summer – and thus less likely to be able to isolate if needed. Young people are also more likely to live in cramped and crowded accommodation (the private hall being a textbook example of this) with limited ventilation.

Given the number of time students have been disadvantaged by government pandemic policy (and the underlying issues with university funding), another set of peaks feels like a joke in particularly poor taste. Yet here we are.

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