Students in lockdown must have access to food and basic toiletries, university leaders have said, as the government made deliveries of just one litre of hand sanitiser to campuses in England.
Universities UK (UUK), which represents 139 higher education institutions, published a “checklist” of measures for universities supporting students who were self-isolating after Covid-19 exposure, several weeks after teaching restarted at some sites.
But the checklist makes no mention of financial support or refunds for costs incurred during lockdowns ordered by university authorities. It was also criticised as too late to help thousands of students already self-isolating, including 824 confirmed Covid cases at Manchester University, more than 770 at Northumbria University, and 800 among students at Sheffield’s two universities.
Students isolating at the University of Leeds have complained they were being offered an “emergency food box” costing £15, including three sachets of dried soup and a bottle of Lucozade as well as pasta and a loaf of bread.
Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, the National Union of Students’ vice-president, said the NUS had warned of the dangers of mass lockdowns but had been ignored by the government and universities.
“For those students who are locked down, or will face being locked down, we must make sure that they are being treated fairly. This must include rent reimbursement for lockdown periods and free internet access, care packages with food, household products, wellbeing materials and general necessities,” Gyebi-Ababio told MPs on the all-party group for students.
“These are basic necessities that all students need and given what they have had to face over the past few weeks, the very minimum that they deserve.”
University leaders in England reported receiving shipments of personal protective equipment (PPE) from the government. In one case a university with more than 20,000 staff and students received 800 face masks, gowns and gloves – and a single litre of sanitiser.
“They’d have been better sending it to a local care home. The challenges at the moment are huge but the one thing that we’re not short of is PPE and cleaning materials,” one senior university executive said.
Asked about students in isolation left without food or outdoor access, Prof Julia Buckingham, president of UUK, told the BBC: “I’m sure there are cases where things haven’t gone quite as well as we would have hoped but I am confident that the vast majority of students have been very, very well supported by their universities.”
Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: “These outbreaks could have been prevented had UUK listened to us when we warned against in-person teaching during a pandemic.
“Instead it chose to cooperate with the government in encouraging students to return to campus. It is scandalous for UUK to now say it is committed to students’ wellbeing when thousands are isolating without their familiar support network due to its actions.
“If UUK is really committed to students’ wellbeing it needs to tell its member institutions to allow students to safely return home if they wish to, without fear of financial penalty for leaving their student accommodation, and join us in calling on the government to provide the financial support to make that possible.”
The checklist requires universities to ensure “students have access to a range of necessities during self-isolation – food or food delivery services, where possible allowing for religious or dietary requirements, laundry services, cutlery and dishes, personal hygiene products, cleaning materials and bin bags, tissues and toilet rolls – which might include a basic care package”.
It says institutions should stay in “regular, proactive and personal contact” with self-isolating students but contains no mention of financial support.