Freshers are refusing to take COVID tests so they don’t have to self isolate

‘It’s sort of like a don’t see, don’t tell vibe’

Everyone knows by now that if you get COVID symptoms, or if you’re around anyone who tests positive, you get a test straight away. You know it like the back of your hand. Government advice might be as confusing as the Wingdings font in Microsoft Word right now, but this part isn’t. And it works in your favour too: The faster you get tested, the faster you isolate or the faster you realise you’re COVID negative and therefore can go free. But with outbreaks in halls all across the country, students are forgoing the Government advice and creating rules of their own.

Speaking to first-year students at a range of UK universities, the new rules of COVID testing are clear: just don’t do it. This method means the uni can’t make you isolate, contact tracers can’t tell everyone you’ve been in contact with to shut themselves in their homes for 14 days, and you can keep the party going. Students don’t care so much about knowing whether or not they have it – to them, it’s Schrodinger’s Covid. What they care about more is that no one else knows.

Tizzie, an Edinburgh student, told The Tab: “It’s sort of like ‘don’t see, don’t tell’ in halls right now. Like an undercurrent of this kinda wink wink attitude. It’s really common [not to get tested], everyone just avoids it. It’s because at the beginning the support measures were absolutely crap for students self-isolating, so everyone disregarded using them. It’s like, if no one knew then they didn’t have to isolate.

“Then equally there is the guilt factor. If I isolated, so did my whole flat. When you live with people you barely know, you don’t want to force them to isolate. It’s like an uncomfortable taking point.”

This “guilt factor” applies to certain students more than others, though, as some freshers are less concerned about their housemates’ opinions. Lucy, a Sussex student, has been forced to return home because her halls flatmates have refused to quarantine despite receiving positive tests and Lucy constantly pleading that they isolate.

“They got tested off-campus so the uni wouldn’t know,” she told The Tab. “They came back positive and I legit had an argument with all of my boys on our WhatsApp group chat because I told them we need to self isolate, and they took it out on me saying that I just want to make this longer than it needs to be. They said they we should just not tell the uni.

“They had parties with 30 or more people some nights. On the night they found out they were positive they had a party too. It’s upsetting because we’re meant to be supporting each other.”

Lucy isn’t the only Sussex student that has been put in an awkward position by her housemates refusing to self isolate, either. Jamie, who is living in the same accommodation, says her “whole flat is in conflict” right now because of one female housemate refusing to get a test.

“My flatmates were hanging out with people from another flat, in real close contact – they went into each other’s flats, took a car together, went to Brighton, etc.

“Then it turned out that girl from the other flat was positive. Two of [my housemates] agreed to get tested but a third girl from my flat just said she would isolate and she hasn’t been. She is still hanging out in communal spaces with a bunch of other flatmates.”

Jamie said the whole situation has made her scared more than anything. “It’s because I know they’re not really taking this seriously,” she said. “We isolated for two weeks before that because a girl tested positive. But even after we got out they were careless. It makes me think that whatever happens, they still won’t fully respect the rules.

“Two of my flatmates have gone home because of it. And now a few of us (including me) have to be careful when using the kitchen, like not use it if someone else is in there.”

The fact that it’s students’ first year at university, living with people they don’t know for the first time makes it all the more difficult. Peer pressure is stronger than usual, and students feel bad about speaking out. Sophie, a student at Leeds, said a boy “cornered” her in her student accommodation and made her promise not to tell the uni if she tested positive. “I was the only one in my hall that hadn’t had it and this boy cornered me and was like ‘if you get it don’t tell the uni ‘cos then we all have to isolate’.

“It put me in a really awkward position. I was like ‘why are you telling me what to do?’ and he was a bit of a bellend about it. It seemed really childish to me, telling me to keep it secret. It just made me feel awkward because I’m obviously probably going to get it at some point, so I either don’t tell the uni or risk people thinking I’m a party pooper.”

Corey, another Leeds student, agrees. The peer pressure means a student he lives near has been hiding from her flatmates so she doesn’t have to admit to her behaviour. “A girl in the flat next door kept going to flat parties and her flatmate tested positive a few days before. But she hides in her room, so they tried to speak to her but she didn’t listen. I know she keeps going to parties in other uni accommodations, even now.”

But students aren’t necessarily the ones to blame here. Tizzie, at Edinburgh, made it clear that she thinks universities should be held responsible for the poor treatment of self-isolating students, effectively forcing them into this behaviour.

“You have to see the emotional side of it,” she says, “the emotional and mental complications of being forced to lockdown. And equally, I would question the university: are they driving students to feel like this when the measures are so crap? Especially at the beginning, the support measures were absolutely awful, so everyone disregarded using them – if no one knew then they didn’t have to isolate.

“It doesn’t justify or condone it but they are factors in play. I think unfortunately until you are in that exact situation, it’s hard to tell which way you would bow.”

A University of Sussex spokesperson said: “We know that the vast majority of our students want to do the right thing and are behaving responsibly. More than 4,000 have signed our Community Pledge to play their part in keeping our community safe during the pandemic.

“We’ve introduced a wide range of measure to support them in doing so. For example, we’ve launched an enhanced support package, including money, food and laundry, for students who need to self-isolate and we have secured a large supply of testing kits, to speed up the process for any students on campus who develop symptoms.

“This is largely working well and we are seeing high levels of reporting and student engagement with our processes.

“Of course, we understand it must be really stressful for students if someone they know isn’t following the rules that are in place for the safety of us all. As well as being against the law, this would be against our student code of conduct and we have student discipline processes in place for dealing with such instances.

“Any student who is worried about the behaviour of another student can speak in confidence to our Residential Life Team and the University will step in to see how the particular situation can be addressed.”

A spokesperson for the University of Leeds told The Tab: “We appreciate this is a difficult and frustrating time for many of our students, but the vast majority understand the importance of keeping themselves – and those they come into contact with – safe.

“They are following NHS, government and University advice, self-isolating and getting tested when they experience symptoms, and helping to drive a recent decline in Leeds’ infection rates.

“We cannot stress enough the importance of sticking to the rules – we host an NHS testing centre on campus and for those who are isolating we provide a wide range of advice and support on our coronavirus website.”

The University of Edinburgh provided links to their Guide to self-isolation and “What to do if you need to self-isolate” pages.