‘Ignored’ or ‘living like a king’: students’ experiences in quarantine depend on where they study

17th October 2020

Many students in quarantine are receiving poor and disorganised support, but wealthier universities appear better prepared to assist isolating students.

Photo Credit: Lotus Bua / Shutterstock.com

By Andrew Hillman

“The student services in response to the coronavirus has just been atrocious. They’ve allowed self-catered students to sit in their accommodation and pretty much starve whilst no real actions were put in place.”

Alfie, a first year studying at Nottingham University, is one of thousands of students across the UK who have been required to isolate during the first month of the academic year.

Since the first university, St Mary’s in London, opened on September 14th, more than 20,000 students and staff have tested positive across the UK.

At most universities, a positive test requires the student’s entire household to self-isolate for up to two weeks. But many students, away from their families and homes, lack support networks and therefore have struggled without the ability to shop for food for sustained periods of time.

“They should have prepared a lot more than tea, coffee and biscuits”

Alfie said that when he first arrived in Nottingham he was “confident in the university that they were taking it very seriously.”

When one of his flatmates developed Covid-19 symptoms, Alfie went into isolation. Alfie took a test himself, which came back positive, after acquiring a persistent cough and loss of taste. In total, nine of Alfie’s house of 11 students took tests, with six positive results.

With food running low, no short-term supermarket deliveries available and the students forbidden from leaving the house, they rang the university’s coronavirus helpline to ask for assistance.

Alfie said that the university could only offer to provide basic essentials. “There weren’t any meals. There was some sliced chicken, enough to have a sandwich, but there were no nutritious meals that we needed.”

“We’re happy to comply, but we need a bit more support. I think they should have prepared a lot more than tea, coffee and biscuits.”

“We kind of felt let down, especially since we’d seen what other universities were providing their students who are in isolation,” Alfie said. “We thought the university would be more prepared.”

Alfie is living in a self-catered townhouse – still accommodation provided by the university, but not in halls. He felt that the university had overlooked the support self-catered students would need during quarantine.

“The majority of students are in catered accommodation located on campus. I’m only over-the-road from campus, but that five-minute walk to university has felt like a long distance because of how much they’ve ignored us.”

“Compared to other students I feel like I’m living like a king”

Universities across the UK have received criticism for failing to supply quarantining students with adequate access to food.

Following a Covid-19 outbreak that forced undergraduates at Edinburgh University into quarantine at catered accommodation at Pollock Halls, two students started “Pollock Prisoner” – an Instagram account sharing stories of the food being provided to self-isolating students. Examples included students waiting days to receive meals, receiving out-of-date food, almonds being given to a student with a nut allergy and meat given to a vegetarian.

Over 1,000 people signed a petition calling on Lancaster University to reduce the price of food parcels offered to isolating students from £17.95 per day. The petition said the “extortionate” parcels were “the only practical way for many to get supplies, given a shortage of delivery spots” and estimated that the parcels cost just £4 to produce and distribute.

But negative experiences have not been universal. Inbar spent his first two weeks in the UK in quarantine after travelling from Canada to begin a Master’s degree at Oxford University.

“The food is incredible,” Inbar said. “I was reading about the situation of other students who have to quarantine here in the UK – in comparison, I really feel like I’m living like a king in here.”

“They’ve taken pretty good care of us. Usually they give me a lot more food than I’m able to consume. The best meal I ate in here was on the second day – we were served oven-roasted duck.”

Inbar’s experience illustrates how some universities have greater financial and organisational resources than others for supporting students in quarantine. Nuffield College, where he studies, is one of the wealthiest per student educational institutions in the world and provides full funding to all its postgraduate students. According to the college’s website, it has 76 staff members – approximately one for each enrolled student. While Alfie said Nottingham University was not reimbursing rent for students who must isolate, Nuffield College waived Inbar’s rent during his quarantine period.

Inbar said his time in quarantine “set the expectation for what going to university under Covid is going to look like.” While his positive experience made him optimistic that he would be well looked after throughout his studies, he sympathised with students receiving less support. “I can definitely understand how especially young undergraduates who are just starting their studies and encounter this chaotic mess, it could lead them to a very negative outlook as to their ability to receive a quality education,” Inbar said.

“A bit of a fiasco”

For Lauren, a first-year student at the University of East Anglia, the initial experience of university was one of confusion.

When she first arrived at her accommodation there was a notice on the door stating that the residents were in quarantine. Since none of Lauren’s flatmates had arrived from abroad or were directed to isolate, they called the university for clarification. “They said ‘Oh – we though you were [isolating].’”

The university removed the note but the same day another isolation notice appeared. Once again, when contacted the university said that nobody needed to isolate. Two weeks later, Lauren finally was instructed to go into quarantine. “We got a letter to say we need to isolate – someone had a positive test or had come into contact. But we hadn’t been contacted by the NHS.”

“The university had been giving out free tests so we all logged on just to double check that our tests were definitely negative and luckily they were,” Lauren said. “So we called up in the morning and they said, ‘We’re not really sure what’s going on but we will look into it. We suggest that you spend the day inside or until we can get some information.’”

Lauren was eventually told that the letter was a mistake and she did not need to isolate, but not before missing a rare opportunity to socialise with the women’s rugby club, which she had joined to make sure she met student’s outside of her flatmates.

It was quite stressful because we had plans,” Lauren said. “It was all a bit of a fiasco.”

“Told by one Test and Trace caller that I could leave and by one that I couldn’t”

Alfie also had to contend with conflicting instructions – from NHS Test and Trace. He said that Test and Trace repeated the process of calling close contacts each time a new member of his flat tested positive.

“The first girl who tested positive had to provide Test and Trace with all of our numbers. Then when I tested positive, I had to provide Test and Trace with the other ten contact details. And then when my other flatmate tested positive he had to, again, give all our contact details over.”

“We gave our contact details over to them six times in total, and then everyone was rung and told to isolate for 14 days from when our symptoms started,” Alfie said.

Ten days after his positive test, Alfie received a call from Test and Trace telling him he could leave isolation the following day. But he then received a call from a different person from Test and Trace who was under the impression that he had more days of isolation to go.

“I don’t think there was much communication between the two because I was told by one that I can leave and one that I couldn’t,” Alfie said. “The Covid-19 app still says I have another six days left.”

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