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Paul Vallely: Easing out of lockdown? Not for students

23 April 2021

They and their mental health should be a higher priority, says Paul Vallely


A sign in the window of student accommodation in Manchester

A sign in the window of student accommodation in Manchester

STUDENTS are at the bottom of Conservative ministers’ list of priorities. That is very clear. Faced with a choice whether to reopen universities or pubs, the politicians chose pubs. That is not a piece of political rhetoric: it is what vice-chancellors were told in a private meeting with the Government.

The easing of the lockdown has resulted in the preposterous situation whereby a student can go into a reopened Waterstones, buy a book, and then discuss it with his tattoo artist, but not with his tutor — not even wearing masks in a room with all the windows open.

The majority of students, who have been stuck at home learning online since December, have been told that they cannot return to university until 17 May — at the earliest. By then, most teaching will be over, leaving students to take end-of-year exams without having had any in-person teaching for most of the year. Small wonder that students have raised questions about their fees, placing banners in their windows proclaiming: “£9K — for what?”

The problem is more than academic. Surveys have shown a deterioration in the psychological health of students. One vice-chancellor has reported a “doubling and quadrupling” of demand for mental-health support from students this year — but no additional government funding to meet the extra demand.

The announcement that students were not to return for the whole summer term came late, and was without explanation. How are we to fathom ministers’ thinking?

Certainly, they were spooked by the surge in Covid-19 cases last autumn, as students returned to college for the start of a new academic year. An article in the latest edition of Nature perhaps offers a clue on this: “It’s transmission in young, healthy, mobile populations that actually does the most damage,” the science magazine suggests.

But it then goes on to report that the transmission hotspots — the ten per cent of locations which account for 80 per cent of infections — are “restaurants, cafés and gyms” and “closed spaces, crowded places and close-contact settings”. Like pubs.

But, ministers say, we can, thanks to the vaccines, take a few risks now. So much so that they allowed 4000 people to watch an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley Stadium, and authorised a non-socially distanced open-air concert in Liverpool for individuals who pass a lateral-flow test. The Government’s biggest risk of all is its plan to allow the British public to go abroad for holidays. Travel-industry experts this week predicted that, from 17 May, British people will be allowed to fly to Gibraltar, Israel, Malta, Dubai, and the Maldives and Seychelles without having to quarantine on their return.

Given fears about new Covid variants from Brazil and South Africa, such unnecessary travel is reckless — not to mention the “double mutant” variant from India which has caused Boris Johnson to cancel his own visit there next week. Holidays taken in Britain will help the recovery of the domestic economy. And, as a society, we need a fundamental rethink on cheap foreign flights if we are to meet the carbon reductions needed to combat global warming.

All this reveals a scandalous inversion of proper priorities. Schools were, quite rightly, the first institutions to reopen as lockdown eased. Why should universities be the last?

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