After a week of wild parties at the University of Manchester’s main accommodation block, the loudest thing heard at night is no longer the thumping of drum and bass music at Oak House raves – but an ensemble of dry coughing.
The University’s response to a coronavirus outbreak at Fallowfield Halls has left students feeling confused and let down.
According to figures released by UoM, 221 staff and students have tested positive for coronavirus – but there are fears the numbers could be much higher in reality.
And unlike the response to an outbreak in halls at neighbouring Manchester Metropolitan University, some students say UoM’s reaction has been lacklustre.
While MMU halls received rent rebates and supermarket vouchers to ease the stress of isolation, UoM’s Fallowfield residents have received e-mails containing contradictory advice.
One advisor told students that a member of an isolating home could go to the shops if they wear a mask, and that they should “feel free” to use their accommodation’s laundry services as long as they wear a mask and wipe down anything they touch. This is against government guidelines.
But other e-mails told quarantined students not to leave their homes under any circumstances.
Another e-mail sent to students from a halls advisor read: “I know it seems very difficult to get [food] deliveries sorted right now, but these are some delivery services that some people use on a regular basis.”
But it then continued to spell out a standard list of supermarket delivery services.
The e-mail went on to say that students can “order takeaways on delivery service apps”, and appeared to suggest students could go out to meet delivery drivers at the gate.
Ben Nicoll, a first-year Maths and Physics student, was sitting at his Oak House kitchen table when a flatmates found out they had tested positive for the coronavirus. His flat then immediately informed the University.
“It’s a big university and we’d heard a lot of things about how prepared they were for COVID via e-mail,” Nicoll said.
But when it came to it, he said the instructions about who to contact were unclear.
Nicoll expressed disappointment at ResLife, who told his flat that they would be on call 24/7 for dealing with any issues, but offered little more advice to the flat than instructing them to use food delivery services.
“They’re expecting students to be very proactive in this when we’re feeling ill because we’ve just got the virus,” Nicoll added.
The University recently provided students with delivery services containing time slots exclusively available to them. But this took over a week to arrange, leaving many struggling to buy food.
Maisie Pearce, a first-year Psychology student currently isolating in Oak House, said this effort is too little too late, especially for students who have been isolating from the start of freshers week.
“It’s come to a point where so many of us are in isolation that I have no friends who I can call upon to bring food,” she said.
In another email to a student, one ResLife advisor admitted his advice had “not been very helpful”, but it was “the best [he could] offer at the moment”.
Pearce also described a lack of University-wide communication regarding coronavirus cases.
She said that the lecturer in one of her Welcome Week sessions didn’t know how many students were currently isolating until students told her.
“Surely the accommodation staff know how many COVID cases there are, but that information clearly isn’t being transferred to the departments,” Pearce added.
And it’s not just students that the University is struggling to protect.
One Oak House resident recalls telling a University repairman not to enter her block as he risked catching the virus.
And it seems students are having to take matters into their own hands by putting home-made notices on their flat doors to warn students and staff not to enter.
Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University said: “We recognise that this is a difficult and worrying time for our community. Our top priority is the safety and well-being of students and staff, which is why we have put in place a comprehensive range of support measures.
“We are being as transparent as possible and will be publishing a daily update (Monday to Friday) showing known confirmed cases among students and staff.
“These figures are reported daily to Public Health England to ensure action is coordinated effectively. We have not been advised to lock down any of our campus buildings or university-owned halls of residence.
“We have put in place comprehensive support arrangements for students who are self-isolating these include access to a dedicated food delivery service, a laundry pick up service and online prescription delivery. Making sure our students have emotional support is really important and they all have access to online 24/7 support with a community of trained professionals, our University Counselling Service and for students in halls we have out of hours teams who can provide additional support.
“Our arrangements ensure that our campus remains as safe a place as possible to work and study, in line with Government guidance. We have planned for a blended mix of online and in-person teaching, but with face-to-face teaching delivered only where this is deemed by local leaders to be appropriate, required and safe to deliver. We are keeping these arrangements under constant review.”
Keep up to date with the latest COVID-19 case figures at the University of Manchester here.
You can find the latest information on the support and advice the University is providing during self-isolation here.
Photos by Carlo Di Giammarino