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Local Politicians In University Towns And Cities Are Bracing For Community Rifts As Thousands Of Students Return After Lockdown

Local Politicians In University Towns And Cities Are Bracing For Community Rifts As Thousands Of Students Return After Lockdown

Students are set to return to university next week (Credit: PA)

5 min read

As thousands of students prepare to return to university, the towns and cities that usually welcome them are steeling themselves for potential rifts with local residents after six months of lockdown.

Council leaders in student towns say they are being ignored while decisions are taken in Westminster that could cause irreparable damage to their communities. 

Liverpool is currently listed as an area of "concern" in terms of rising cases of Covid-19, with just over 31 infections being recorded weekly per 100,000 people.

The city took decisive action a few weeks ago when a localised outbreak was identified in Princes Park, Toxteth, but leaders fear they will not be able to contain larger incidents. 

"We are very conscious that we only really got hit by coronavirus the first time in the middle of February and the number of institutions that will be potentially affected second time around will be much broader," Paul Brant, Liverpool City Council cabinet member for health told PoliticsHome.

"The demands on the service will be much greater and we have not seen an increase in resource to meet that additional need.

"There is a fundamental incoherence in the government's policy of saying everyone should go back to city centres for everything work-related, then act as if there is a highly infectious virus in terms of any social activity. It’s bizarre."

"Our public health teams are already stretched to breaking point providing assistance to care homes, our health transport service and to schools," Cllr Brant added.

"We will inevitably have some localised outbreaks in the student population,  which will be in higher density areas and any form of lockdown exacerbates tensions like a pressure cooker.

"We don't have anything like the support we need to deal with this."

When one Labour MP asked if her city would be offered government cash to beef up local contact tracing to help cut the potential spread of the virus, she was told her question was "too complicated to answer".

Sheffield has also made it onto the list of areas of concern, prompting local MP Olivia Blake to submit a written question to the Department of Health and Social Care.

"I asked government what resources they would give to local authorities in areas like ours to do contact tracing at a local level, to get on top of any potential outbreaks quickly and they said my question was too complicated to answer," she said.

In its official response, the department said it would "not be possible to answer this question within the usual time period" and that an answer would be "provided as soon as it is available".

But for many community leaders, time is not a luxury they can afford - with the university term official starting in less than a week.

"It certainly doesn't fill you with confidence and I am worried about it.  It just shows there is no plan for dealing with this particular issue," Ms Blake, whose constituency contains two universities, said.

"The people who are best at this are clearly local authorities who know their communities, who know the areas where students live and I fear there are going to be difficult times ahead unless they are given proper support."

She added: "I am pretty worried about it – we are going to see thousands of students travelling to Sheffield, out of Sheffield, right across the country at a time when there is huge pressure being placed on young people to prevent the spread of the virus.

"The government guidance is very weak in this area and different universities are acting in different ways.  And while in Sheffield, the council and universities have a joint plan in place, the powers and ability of local services to cope are going to be massively stretched by this. 

"It’s hugely irresponsible of the government to continue to press ahead, when some of the biggest northern cities are on the cusp of needing more intervention."

In Oxford, students from both of the city's universities are beginning to return ahead of an October start. Deputy council leader Tom Hayes said the situation is already causing alarm among some local residents.

"My ward has a high student population, with lots of multiple-occupation households in the private rental sector, alongside permanent residents," he told PoliticsHome.

"There are residents in some streets who have been here for 30 or 40 years.  They're used to living alongside students, and the odd complaint about noise or parties aside, there has always been a very easy relationship between generations.

"But some of these residents, particularly those who are older and have spent months in lockdown, are genuinely very frightened that there is going  to be a concentration of people from outside Oxford all now coming together in one place."

A lack of consultation, information and support from Westminster has exacerbated tensions, Cllr Hayes said, with "clarity of communication" a particular problem for community leaders.

"Pointing the finger of blame at young people does nothing except sow division among these communitites that have lived side by side quite happily for so long," he added.

"At the start of lockdown, students were going out to get milk and shopping for older residents who couldn't go outside and they are ready and willing to help in that way again.  I have had students contact me to ask what they should be doing to ensure they stick by the rules, because they are so confused by the government guidance. 

"And when the first we hear of the new rules is from a BBC news alert on our phones, there is little we can do to help ease people's concerns.

"I'd say I'd like councils in university cities and towns to be at the front of the queue for conversations and consultation with central government about impending restrictions, but in reality the queue doesn't even exist.  We've been completely ignored."

A government spokesperson said: “We are continuing to work closely with local leaders and public health teams to inform decisions on local interventions, taking into account a range of factors.

“Public Health England, the Joint Biosecurity Centre and NHS Test and Trace are constantly monitoring the levels of infection across the country. We are in discussion with local directors of public health and local authorities, constantly reviewing the evidence and will take swift targeted action where necessary.”

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