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York Outer MP apologises for blaming universities for rise in Covid cases

The MP apologised for his statement in an email to representatives of both York St. John and the University of York, stating that his “criticism is not of the student population or the way in which our universities have handled the situation.”

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Image Credit: David Woolfall

In an article by Nouse last week, we reported that Conservative MP for York Outer, Julian Sturdy, seemingly blamed students for the rise in York’s Covid cases. The MP took to Twitter, stating that “York's universities are driving the spike in cases and the transmission rates in the wider community remains unclear.” However, after criticism from students – particularly YUSU President Patrick O’Donnell – Sturdy has apologised, saying that “my criticism is not of the student population or the way in which our universities have handled the situation.”

Sturdy’s original statement prompted anger from York’s student community, and he received numerous comments underneath his Tweet from individuals expressing disagreement with his views. The Tweet in question, as well as the attached statement, however, has not been removed from the MP’s Twitter.

In response to the Tweet, O’Donnell was interviewed by BBC News, and spoke about why these views were damaging to York’s wider community. On BBC News, O’Donnell spoke against Sturdy’s views, arguing that “students are on the forefront of fighting back against this pandemic” and that “lazy generalisations that pit the local community against students do nothing to bring us together.”

As a result of this combined backlash, Sturdy has now issued an official apology for what he wrote. In an email to both York St. John and The University of York’s students’ unions, as well as Vice Chancellor Charlie Jeffery and York St. Johns Vice Chancellor Karen Bryan, the MP wrote that “upon reflection, the Tweet that you refer to was too blunt and I would encourage everyone to read the full statement to see the context of my remarks. I apologise if it came across as an attack on our universities and York’s student population, which was not my intention.”

He said that he was “impressed with the steps that both universities have taken to reduce the risk of transmission on campus and I am grateful to York’s student population for the contribution that they make to the local economy and to community organisations in the city. None of this is in dispute and it was not the subject of my statement.”

Surprisingly, Sturdy later stated that his real frustration was with “the Government for the lack of information that I received prior to the introduction of new restrictions.” He states that he “had previously received assurances from Ministers that in cities where the outbreak was clearly centred on a university campus, the Government would not seek to impose restrictions city-wide.”

Nouse asked O’Donnell as to whether he felt satisfied with the apology from Sturdy, and he told us that he is “pleased that Mr Sturdy recognises the need to look at the bigger picture and has clarified his remarks. It's important that we tackle the narrative of just pointing the finger at students, especially given the fact that there are case increases in many areas in Yorkshire, with no university campuses.”

He went on to add more information as to why the infection rate amongst the student body is potentially higher, stating that “students overwhelmingly live in overcrowded housing, where the virus is far more likely to spread through no fault of their own. Many are also exposed to the virus through their work in the NHS and hospitality industry.”

He also further commented on the University's response to this issue of infection amongst the student population, stating that “the Universities Minister has commented previously on York's safe return to campus, demonstrated through students looking out for each other in our venues, like The Forest. This success is down to us all so thank you to all our students who are playing their part to keep us all safe.”

Finally, he spoke further on how a divide between the local community and students is not helpful in the current climate, commenting that “all approaches to tackling the pandemic need to involve all members of our community. Pitting different groups against one another does nothing to bring us together, at a time when our shared sense of community and purpose is so important.” He concluded by affirming that “I’ll continue to call out all those in positions of influence who make clumsy statements and ultimately do nothing to protect our community.”

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