Students at U.K. universities are returning to start the academic year. With coronavirus circulating, courses online, and clubs closed, they enter a year like no other. But some are opting to party as if it’s 1999 and nothing has changed. At what price?
Their urge to socialize is understandable. Between January and April 2020, half of the world’s population rescinded freedoms under national lockdowns. U.K. citizens were no exception, losing their right to socialize with people in other households and their access to public places. Young people have since had to put up with limited contact with their friends – a mere annoyance for some and a lifeline lost for others.
What’s more, young people (who make up the majority of students) suffer the least from coronavirus. As of June 2020, the infection fatality rate among U.K. under-50s was estimated at ‘near 0%’ compared to an 11.6% rate among over 75s. Most teens will not even show symptoms if they contract the virus.
Given their relatively low risk of a severe case of coronavirus, and their long time spent cooped up indoors, continuing to self-isolate can appear counterintuitive for students. It’s also less fun. Hence a spate of law-defying parties across the country.
The U.K. government has mandated that any social gathering should unite no more than 6 people, with social distance maintained and high hygiene standards upheld. Despite this, a student house in Nottingham hosted a 50-person gathering (for which police slapped them with the maximum fine of £10k). In Edinburgh, Exeter, Manchester, and Oxford Brookes Universities – to name but a few – students have been filmed congregating en masse in halls of residence. Residents in Leeds complain that loud student parties have stopped them from sleeping for weeks.
Partygoers aren’t just noisy neighbours. They can unintentionally marginalize their fellow students. 1 in 8 students in English Universities reports having a disability, some of which necessitate medications like immunosuppressants. This puts them at greater risk of dying or becoming seriously ill if they contract COVID-19.
Students do not live in a bubble either. They live amongst lecturers, shopkeepers, security guards, bus drivers, and sometimes their parents, all of whom are likely older and thus more vulnerable than they.
Universities have responded with little sympathy for students’ antics. After 200 students were filmed raving in Coventry University accommodation, the University joined forces with West Midlands police to impose disciplinary action against participants. So far they have fined two students £200 each. Meanwhile, Oxford University is requiring students to sign an ‘affirmation of shared values,’ committing themselves to ‘abide by national regulations,’ ‘request a test’ if showing COVID symptoms, and ‘practice effective hygiene’ among other things.
Despite all the noise, only a minority of students are flouting rules for socialization’s sake. But as the recurrence of ‘super-spreader’ events shows, all it takes is one gathering for coronavirus cases to balloon in a local area. For most students that means little more than a cough and a sneeze; for the people they live amongst, the consequences can be far graver.