Government scientific advisers have warned universities about hosting freshers’ weeks next month, saying they could lead to “very large spikes” in coronavirus cases.
Universities across the country are planning to hold in-person events for first-year students next month for the first time since 2019.
Professor Susan Michie, director of the centre for behaviour change at University College London, a member of the government’s Covid-19 behavioural science team and part of the Independent Sage group of scientists, said that even if freshers’ events were held outdoors there would still be a “high risk” associated with them.
“Freshers’ fair week will have the potential for being a superspreader event, and however much universities pay attention to making it as safe as possible, it’s the behaviour of people that won’t be known,” she said, speaking in a personal capacity.
She added: “The other thing, traditionally, is they’ve been associated with people drinking, and we know alcohol consumption disinhibits behaviour. So even if people go in with very good intentions of behaving in a low-risk way, after a couple of pints these things can change.”
Danny Altmann, professor of Immunology at Imperial and a member of the Sage immunology taskforce, echoed Michie’s predictions. He said that despite the vaccine rollout, the UK was in a “way, way worse situation than we were last August heading into autumn” as schools and universities prepared to go back.
“So if I imagine vast numbers of kids getting together in halls of residence and in freshers’ week parties, I think how can one not predict that will lead to very large spikes in numbers?”
He said he understood the pressure to return to normal after students had been “horrifically shortchanged” over the last year and a half. But looking at the case numbers and demographics, he added: “It feels like another case of wishful thinking – mind over matter that somehow there’s going to be some miracle and it’s all going to be OK. From my knowledge, I can’t see how or why it should be OK.”
Michie said she was also concerned about how students would mix outside freshers’ events – including student accommodation. “You have large numbers of people coming from all over the world, travelling all over the country. It’s not just being at university but people are in halls of residence where they are crowding into each other’s rooms for drinks in the evening, or shared flats outside of university.”
Students said they had mixed feelings about attending freshers’ week in a pandemic. Guy Yashiv is going to UCL, where he will be studying maths with management studies. Due to medical conditions, the 19-year-old from north London hardly went out during lockdown and had his vaccine early, but still contracted Covid over the summer.
Yashiv will probably wear a mask indoors at any freshers’ events. While excited about going to university, he hoped that it would be “as normal an experience as possible”. But he added: “I’m not oblivious to the fact that it might end up being just as last year, although I really hope it doesn’t.”
Lily Soaper, who is going to the University of Birmingham to study politics and international relations, has bought tickets for an Abba night and a concert during freshers’ week. Although the 19-year-old from Stoke-on-Trent is excited about going to university and having a first taste of freedom, she is also nervous about getting coronavirus, despite being fully vaccinated.
She said: “Me and my family have been really safe and have followed what the government has said basically for the entire thing. So going to university and the restrictions being lifted makes me feel a bit panicky.”
Mental health charity Student Minds said it was an anxious time for both new and returning students and recommended that they liaised with their university and students’ union to find out what to expect.
A government spokesperson said: “It is unfair to suggest that universities and students are not engaging in measures to protect against coronavirus – the sector has put a huge amount of work into ensuring students can return to education safely.
“An ONS survey report suggests 90% of students have already been, or are likely, to be vaccinated, and we know many higher education providers will be providing vaccine pop-up centres and other ways of supporting access to the vaccine programme from the start of term.
“From September, students and staff should continue to test twice a week, either using home test kits or at an onsite facility from the start of term. Government advice to providers has been regularly updated throughout the year to reflect the latest situation.”