Will it be lonely this Christmas?

Let’s have a think about your university’s Christmas break for a minute.

It’s a reasonable guess that there will still be significant restrictions on premises/facilities, gatherings and household visits wherever you are in the UK. It’s a reasonable guess that some kind of exemption/relaxation will be created for the actual Christmas period itself.

It’s also a reasonable guess that despite all the policy focus on students studying away from home getting home, you will have a large number of students in halls of residence (both your own and private operators’) and scattered across your town/city in HMOs.

Obviously the bulk of these students will be international students who can’t travel, never intended to travel, might want to avoid the quarantine on the way back in or have some other reason for sticking around. They won’t all be international – estranged students or care experienced students may also be intending to be around, and there will always be others who have particular circumstances.

In any year we ought to worry about those “left behind”. Campus facilities tend to close or reduce hours, social events dry up and often premises that represent student haunts get mothballed. What lots of these students do is find each other and spend time with each other over the break – they meet in social learning spaces, keep in touch with others from their international society, and forge new friendships in cafes and bars. And if they’re lucky, the university cooks them Christmas lunch and one of the SU sabbatical officers dresses up as Santa.

Obviously, some of them will be concentrated in the halls that are there. But some will be quite dispersed around those halls (both hotel and flat style) – there may not be anyone from your cluster flat or your part of your floor, but there’s people around. And some will be scattered across HMOs around the city. Maybe they lived with three other students who all made it home.

All of this poses a major problem for us if anything like the current restrictions applies anywhere. At this stage there’s a material chance that students will be prevented from seeing anybody else for the whole of the Christmas break. Whichever part of the UK you’re in, you could well have restrictions that prevent mixing with other households or at best only allow meeting one or two other households. Meeting those households might only be allowed outdoors, and meeting indoors even on Christmas Day might be restricted to a defined (and low) number of households.

Even if you’re thinking “it’s OK, there’s a bubble/extended household thing for single people”, remember in almost all cases so far people have been legally prevented from switching these at will.

So the policy question is this. If loneliness and isolation is already an impact of the pandemic on the student experience, what do we do about what could be hundreds of thousands of young people – mainly international and those estranged from or that don’t have a family – living in what will amount to single person households for a whole month over Christmas? Particularly when the solutions we might usually have may well not be allowed.

There are good epidemiological reasons for leaving people this socially distant all Christmas, but terrible potential impacts on mental health. Ideally, you’d take every student “staying around” over the break and consolidate them into as few households as possible. You could ensure that anyone left on their own on their floor or in their cluster flat can move room over the break to join others, and you could offer to accommodate students scattered around the town or city for free in your halls.

Are there challenges to this kind of solution? Yes there are. Should that be where testing capacity is focussed or a detailed quarantining plan be developed? You bet. Are there other ways to fix this? Maybe.

What will happen if we don’t fix this? We’re back to the twin balloons again – some will follow the rules and be desperately lonely about it, and some will ignore them but will avoid getting a test or complying with self-isolation support because of the punishment/risk/lack of support on offer for adherence.

So we should plan this. And yes, I’m well aware that legally this might need some specific exemptions, or arguing that over Christmas and in January people are “moving house” twice or something, but we are where we are.

Let’s try, please, to put some big sector brains on this one now rather than waiting for DfE to not fix it for us in vague guidance that comes too late. We surely should aim for no student to be lonely this Christmas?

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