Student unions are telling students they won’t be admitted to freshers’ parties in the next few weeks without a Covid pass or negative lateral flow test, in an attempt to avoid a repeat of last year’s outbreaks on campus.
Earlier this month, the government performed a U-turn on plans to compel nightclubs from 1 October to ask for Covid passports that prove someone has had two Covid vaccinations or a negative test. But many student unions have chosen to go further than government guidelines because they fear that a more relaxed stance could lead to outbreaks and students being confined to their bedrooms again.
Ben Dolbear, president of Southampton University students union, said: “All our surveys show that students are desperate to see their friends again. But their other priority is their health and protecting family and friends. We are trying to balance those things.” Southampton is requiring students to show proof of a negative lateral flow test within 24 hours of any freshers’ event to gain entry. Free tests are available in halls, on campus and outside party venues. Students will also be required to wear masks at indoor freshers’ parties.
Dolbear said students generally understand that such compromises are necessary to avoid spreading the virus and keep campuses open. “We’ve had no complaints from the early arrivals so far. Students are quite happy to be taking a test if it means they can see friends and go partying again,” he said.
Last year, many universities had Covid outbreaks on campus just days into the start of the autumn term, and by the end of September thousands of angry students were confined to their rooms, with many facing disciplinary action for illegal parties.
But Danny Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial College London and a member of the government’s Sage advisory group on immunology, warned that people could no longer be “blase” about students being in no real danger.
He said: “We perceive the risk to young people very differently from how we did this time last year, because the Delta variant has shifted the demographic of people going into hospitals way downwards. We have an awful lot of young people in hospitals.”
Professor Altmann said universities were right to try to make freshers’ events as Covid-safe as possible. “If I envisage going back into the situation of last year with Covid spreading in crowded halls and freshers’ week parties, of course I am fearful. Why wouldn’t we want maximum mitigations?” he said.
Many universities are extending their freshers’ weeks in order to run special “refresher” events for returning students, particularly second years who missed the party season last year.
But Professor Steve West, president of Universities UK, said universities and student unions were “taking their responsibilities very seriously” and most were introducing tougher Covid guidelines at events. His own institution, the University of West of England in Bristol, is requiring all students to present either Covid passes or proof of a negative test to enter freshers’ events. The university has also encouraged popular student venues in the city to follow suit.
He said: “We were concerned that we would introduce this on campus but it wouldn’t be mirrored in the city centre. The deal we’ve struck is that we will promote responsible club owners who have adopted our approach.”
“Part of coming to university is learning about personal responsibility and that your actions have consequences,” he added. “If we all work together, campuses will remain open.”
Other universities publicising the need for passes or tests for freshers’ events include Sussex, Manchester, Bath, Liverpool and Royal Holloway, University of London.
Professor David Green, vice chancellor of Worcester University, said instead of requiring Covid passes his university concentrated on outdoor events at its welcome festival last weekend.
Students gathered in open-sided marquees or sat on deckchairs on the lawn, with events including open-air cinema and bands.
“It’s not just about partying, it’s about meeting fellow students, talking about shared interests and making friends. That’s what young people have been missing,” he said.