Enter 256, the popular student bar in Fallowfield, Manchester, and it’s usually the heat that hits you first. In ordinary times, and particularly during freshers’ week, the dimly-lit repurposed church building is packed with hundreds of sweaty youngsters dancing and enjoying booze-fuelled nights out.
Covid-19 has rendered such gatherings unimaginable, and this year will be much quieter. Capacity has been slashed by more than half. The dancefloor has been replaced by tables and chairs. There will be no crowd surfing or drunken flirtations at the bar. You sit down at a table, or you’re out.
Leeroy Nelson, the bar’s manager, said he was looking forward to welcoming students to what will be a very altered vibe. “Students bring life, they bring variety,” he said. “I’ve been in the hospitality business for 20-plus years, and not a day goes by without a different story to tell. I just hope that the students who come in are mature enough to respect how everything works.”
In university cities and towns across the country, students are set to encounter a transformed reality next month. The bustling student district of Fallowfield, which once had its raucous house parties debated in parliament, is one of many places that will have to trim its sails.
The area is home to Manchester University’s main accommodation block, and businesses are quietly gearing up for what is usually one of their busiest months, without quite knowing what the return of students will bring. Promoters would usually be dotted on street corners, attempting to lure twentysomethings with £1 shots. But now, when students arrive, they will be greeted by floor markings, hand sanitiser, and signs reminding them to keep socially distanced.
Locals hope there is enough to keep young people occupied and dissuade them from heading out in crowds or hosting illegal house parties.
Students are an economic boon to the area, and their presence is mostly welcomed. But Greater Manchester has already been subjected to a local lockdown, and as the council fights to get a grip on Covid, residents are hoping the young influx acts responsibly.
Liam Smyth, a community organiser who set up a coronavirus support group for the area, said students had to play their part to keep everyone safe, particularly following reports of youngsters flocking to illegal raves at the height of the outbreak.
“The biggest concern at the moment is the spread of the virus,” he said. “It’s people under 25 who have been the biggest spreaders, and the parties that have been going on recently add to that fear.”
Natalie Power, the owner of family-run hair and beauty salon Dylan Robert, has been working as a hairdresser in Fallowfield for 37 years and enjoys the status of a local hero to students past and present.
The 52-year-old describes herself as the “Manchester perm queen”, and even has students living above her shop. She is pessimistic about the prospect of students reining themselves in: “They can be quite rebellious. They will do what they want to do, and no one can question it.”
Her daughter Amber Power, 24, who also works at the salon, said numerous parties had been hosted by young people during lockdown. “There have been corona parties, I know [they’ve happened] in Fallowfield, a million per cent,” she said.
“There was a lad, one of our customers, that didn’t believe he would catch it. He had a corona party, and his best friend was actually put on life support.”
Staff at Manchester University have been working around the clock to prepare for the return. Arrivals will be staggered, with students given a move-in time and date to avoid overcrowding.
The majority of halls will operate at full capacity, but additional safety measures such as sanitiser stations and screens will be in place.
Those sharing accommodation will be considered as “bubbles” – so won’t need to socially distance, and will be able to attend activities together.
April McMahon, a vice president at Manchester University, said the institution was working to ensure students “made the most” out of the coming year.
“The campus will look and feel similar to last year,” she said. “The main differences will be the signage around the buildings that will offer guidance and advice concerning protocols and behaviour.”
Other universities are trialling similar initiatives to limit the spread of the virus and protect the local community. In Hull, staff and students will be issued with university-branded face masks, and London South Bank University will hand out 7,000 bottles of sanitiser to students.
Alfie Martin, a second-year engineering student, admits he wasted no time getting stuck into the freshers’ experience when he arrived at Fallowfield halls last year. He said students would be hard to control.
“There’s going to be an awful lot of people wanting to go out, and there’s going to be a lot of restrictions,” the 19-year-old said. “There’s definitely going to be some friction there. I think it will be a bit chaotic at points.”
Following freshers’ week, undergraduates traditionally cram into lecture halls, scrambling for seats and hoping to hear tutors over the sound of clicking laptop keys and infamous “fresher’s flu” coughs.
This year, many universities won’t let students anywhere near auditoriums for at least the first term.
Bosses have said they will implement a system of “blended learning” – with all lectures delivered online and limited in-person teaching in classrooms where students will be required to wear masks and remain socially distanced.
Martin said he did not know the current status of his mechatronic engineering course, and that he might have to spend the year outside the laboratories doing theory: “All of my practicals have been moved to the third year, which means this coming year is going to be pretty brutal.”
He added that he didn’t think watching online lectures for a year was necessarily worth the tuition fee of £9,250.
Any further lockdown measures could throw the university’s plans into disarray, but as it currently stands, the only certainty is that returning students will come back to a very different Fallowfield to the one they left.