A Covid Christmas: mass testing and moral obligations


The government's Christmas plan may sound like a welcome break, but it leads to difficult implications for students

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Image by Ian Wiggins

By Ben Wilson

While it is up for debate whether or not the Government’s December plans have been well delivered, what remains unquestionable is the pressure put onto students as a result. Lurking in the shadows of last week’s Sorting-Hat-style tier announcement and the suggested student migration procedure, are the implicit moral obligations with which students are now burdened. The nation’s eyes have, once again, been turned towards those at universities and other educational facilities across the country, giving students a feeling they are likely to find familiar.

As universities were given the go-ahead to reopen, students became the Government’s scapegoat for rising infection rates in September and October. However, this naive criticism by figures such as Health Secretary Matt Hancock failed to recognise the inevitable impact of the Government’s various normality-restoring schemes such as ‘Eat Out to Help Out’, and the reopening of schools and colleges.

Fortunately, voices such as those belonging to Independent SAGE and the UCU highlighted that the main cause was not “socialising by people in their 20s and 30s” as Hancock suggested, and that perhaps the primary culprit was a little higher up the food chain. A lack of support for students seeking tuition and accommodation refunds, a premature return to in-person teaching and a green light for students from all over the country to return to shared accommodation; it’s easy to sit and finger point when you ignore those who encouraged students to return in the first place.

So why has that sense of imminent accusation once again reared its ugly head?
Well, although many of us will be grateful for the opportunity to travel home for the festive season, the safety measures put in place to accommodate this relaxation are not without their faults (ring any bells?). The Government’s mass testing plan, in conjunction with its suggested student travel window, are examples of this flawed procedure. It is likely, therefore, that the inevitable spike in cases after Christmas will be attributed to returning students despite the obvious and foreseeable blind spots in the plans announced last week.
Talk of said blind spots would not be complete without mention of the obvious, widespread doubt over the effectiveness of so-called rapid result lateral-flow tests. Public Health England reports a 76.8 per cent overall success rate in identifying positive cases, following the deployment of these tests in Liverpool. Although tests will be taken twice by each student, the uncomfortably high chance of receiving a false negative is likely to loom in the minds of those going home to vulnerable family members.

Next to consider are the dates for the advised 6-day student travel window, from the 3rd to the 9th of December. The issue with this is that it neglects to account for students whose terms finish after the closure of the travel window, and who are also unable to work from home. For example, many 3rd and 4th year students will be completing vital dissertation research and will therefore be reliant upon university facilities such as labs and libraries. Equally, many students are tied to part time jobs, with employers who expect them to return to work following the end of the national lockdown. For some, losing such employment is not an option if they are dependent upon it to fund their living expenses.

The cost of this short-sightedness is that many students in these positions are now faced with a weighty moral decision: do they disobey government guidelines and book an appointment at an ordinary Covid-19 testing centre despite not having any symptoms, do they go home without a test and potentially risk the health of their family members or do they not return to their families at all?

This overwhelming pressure has accumulated over the course of the year, and is likely to have contributed to both the current surge of mental health issues affecting students and the need for means of self-justification. By this I mean the dependence on unfounded pseudo-facts by, not just students, but  members of the population whose circumstances are not accounted for by governmental guidelines.

Besides the students whose situations are broadly outlined above, a good example might be the portion of young people spread around the country working in full-time jobs, to whom the mass testing plan shows total disregard. Despite being the same age as the majority of students, and being more likely to live alone, there is no plan in place for them to return to their families for Christmas. In many cases, these individuals will be forced to self-justify their migration home.

The issue here is that we will begin to develop a culture, if it has not begun to develop already, whereby people are welcome to interpret guidelines how they see fit. So far this has entailed a great deal of reliance upon pseudo-science or rumours and myths regarding the virus. For example, unofficial data has been published from various sources regarding the rate of reinfection. I have heard various statistics involving the number of cases where patients have tested positive for Covid-19 on two distinct occasions, from “only 5 in Europe” to “none which are proven”. The truth is that reinfection seems highly uncommon, but regardless these forgotten portions of the population should not be left to rest on such uncertain terms.

One certainty, at least, is that over Christmas we will all be wishing for a less turbulent return to university come Spring Term. Cheers to that.