Bosses at Manchester Metropolitan University say hundreds of students under Covid-19 lockdown are free to leave their accommodation but “trust they will do the right thing” and continue to self-isolate.
Fears were raised among a number of students that they were being falsely imprisoned as human rights lawyers questioned the legality of security staff enforcing a 14-day isolation period, while a Liverpool-based firm offered their services “pro bono”.
On Sunday, Professor Malcolm Press, vice chancellor of the university, said they were unable to prevent up to 1,700 students from leaving Birley campus or Cambridge Halls but said he expected them to follow Government guidance on self-isolation.
Students described being scared and confused as their accommodation was locked down on Friday after 127 people tested positive for coronavirus.
They were later informed the decision, made in conjunction with Public Health England and Manchester City Council, was “deemed necessary” to prevent the spread of the virus to other students, staff or the local community.
Prof Press said the “physical and emotional wellbeing of our students is paramount” and acknowledged the impact of the “extremely short” notice given.
He said: “Many of them are away from home for the first time and still finding their feet.
“Their welfare is our top priority and that is why we have been working hard with organisations around the city since Friday evening to put in place support to help during this 14-day period.
“We are urgently preparing a care package which we hope will ensure students will have the essentials they require in halls, plus financial support to assist them through this challenging period.
“We expect students to follow the guidance for self-isolation set out by the Government and Public Health England.
“Our staff are on hand 24 hours a day to provide, support, guidance and deal with concerns.
“We are unable to prevent our students from leaving the halls, but our students are bright, young adults and we trust that they will do the right thing.”
He went on: “The Government places a high priority on universities staying open and delivering high quality education.
“Students tell us that they value the mix of online and face-to-face education and it is important that we do what we can to deliver this in a Covid-secure way.
“It would be unfair for students to put their lives on hold.”
Earlier, Dominic Waddell, 21, a first-year filmmaking student, told the PA news agency: “I have heard people mentioning claims of false imprisonment.
“There’s a great deal of anger, people aren’t very happy with how the university’s run it, considering we’re the ones that allow them to keep running because we’re the ones that give them this money and now they’re locking us in the homes we’re paying for so it’s very frustrating.”
The university’s branch of the University and College Union (UCU) said it had “nothing but sympathy” for the students and their families.
In a statement issued on Sunday, it said: “As a union we warned senior managers that the outcome of returning to campus in the manner they proposed would be the situation we are now seeing unfold.
“We have said this repeatedly in formal and informal meetings, and in writing.
“Our warnings went unheeded.”
The university says it has stepped up food deliveries in partnership with local supermarkets but said the self-isolating students were not permitted to travel to a nearby Covid-19 testing centre in Denmark Road while it works with local health services to provide alternative arrangements.
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