Dress codes are nothing new to students going out in Manchester – no trainers, no football shirts and, increasingly, no man bags. But one student party this weekend had a special entry requirement: Covid.
According to one fresher at the University of Manchester, the “Covid Positive” party in the university’s Fallowfield campus halls of residence was broken up by security on Saturday. It is just one of the increasing instances of students’ risky behaviour during lockdown restrictions.
“There was a flat party a few days ago which had a policy that you could only get in if you were positive. It was like their health-and-safety measure,” the 18-year-old physics student said.
Had security not arrived it could have been a big party. According to David Regan, Manchester’s director of public health, the incidence rate in the city’s 17-21 undergraduate age group is now 2,935 for every 100,000 people – almost six times higher than the rest of Manchester, which itself now has the highest rate in the UK.
By Sunday, 1,041 University of Manchester students had tested positive, most of them living in halls, plunging thousands of others into isolation. A smaller outbreak at nearby Manchester Metropolitan University in late September was deemed serious enough to force 1,700 students into a two-week quarantine, with 531 positive cases in the first two weeks of term.
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Across the UK, university cities have seen large flare-ups since students arrived last month, lured by the promise of face-to-face teaching that has already been cancelled as Covid rips through campuses. Confined to their flats instead of painting the town red, some halls have turned into 24-hour party palaces, prompting fears not just of further contagion but also of risky behaviour.
In Newcastle, where more than 800 cases have been reported across its two universities, three students died last weekend after apparently taking drugs in halls. While the circumstances of the deaths are unclear, some students wonder if they would have occurred had the students been able to go to pubs and clubs.
For Prof Fiona Measham, chair of criminology at the University of Liverpool and a world expert in club drugs, it was a tragedy waiting to happen.
“This is something I have been warning about all summer to anyone who would listen,” she said. “Everyone was so busy with coronavirus and no one was thinking about what would happen when the students came back. There’s no nightclubs and pubs close at 10pm. Nightclubs are a semi-safe space, they have registered door staff and security, the bigger clubs often have paramedics, they have chillout spaces. If you don’t have nightclubs open, you lose that safety net.”
At Northumbria University’s Trinity Square campus, parties are still taking place despite many students isolating, said one 19-year-old. “There are still messages in the group chat asking where the next party is,” he said.
The atmosphere in halls is “surreal”, he said: “Me and my flatmates walk by flats that have sticky notes on their windows displaying they have corona, like the red plague marks during the Black Death, and the silence from the uni is deafening.”
He complained that students self-isolating were still going outside to smoke, touching doors and lift buttons to leave the buildings.
“I’ve talked to a few people here and there waiting for the lift and stuff and it’s all the same message, that the uni got us to come back just to take our money,” he said.
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The University of Nottingham, which is running its own testing programme, said 425 students had active confirmed cases of the virus in the week ending Friday 2 October. Sheffield University has reported 583 student cases since 28 September.
Back in Manchester, both universities announced the cancellation of all face-to-face teaching on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Covid continues to run rampant among the University of Manchester’s 40,000 students. One social sciences student isolating in Richmond Park halls said she was keeping a spreadsheet showing how many cases there were in Poplar Court, where she is living. “Twenty-five out of 32 flats are isolating,” she said. “Six out of eight of my flat have tested positive. I didn’t have a test but I’m pretty sure I’ve got it now.”
Local MPs Jeff Smith and Afzal Khan both said they received fewer complaints about student parties than in a “normal” freshers week. But students say there have been “big flat parties”, with students gathering in huge groups outside their dorms. One “rave” made the local media after a video of hundreds of students dancing to a sound system transported in a shopping trolley went viral.
Things have calmed down now teaching has started, said the social sciences student, though Covid Positive parties seem to be spreading like the virus: “There are always invitations flying around on WhatsApp saying stuff like: ‘Come to flat 8, we’ve all got ’Rona.’ It’s hard to know how serious they are because I haven’t been, but some people do feel quite a lot of pressure to go out. There’s a massive amount of insecurity in freshers week, with everyone wanting to make friends. There’s a fear if you don’t go out you will be alone.”
A University of Manchester spokesperson said: “The university is aware of this incident and we strongly condemn this irresponsible behaviour and conduct.
“We are investigating this as a matter of urgency and will deal with the students responsible via our internal disciplinary processes. The universities are meeting daily with Greater Manchester police and Manchester city council to review incidents and respond accordingly.
“The vast majority of our students are behaving responsibly, and we are supporting them if they are self-isolating. As a university we will continue to do all we can to keep our students, staff and the wider Manchester community safe.”