Cambridge University’s response to Covid-19 shows a real lack of initiative and students deserve better

Why is the University waiting for our government to mandate changes before it acts?

#cambridge coronavirus

As the Covid-19 pandemic worsens, it is ludicrous for Cambridge University to be waiting for and following government advice before committing to decisive action. Our government is so worried about mass hysteria and potentiality for economic collapse that they are shirking all responsibility for dealing with the crisis in the here and now.

Boris Johnson is acting against leaders across the globe in adopting ‘nudge theory’, one that plans for ‘herd immunity’ by allowing 60-70 per cent of the UK population to carry the virus, apparently in the hopes that a follow-up pandemic would have less serious effects. All of a sudden, in a complete u-turn from his referendum rhetoric, Johnson calls on us to listen to the experts, but to these ones he has picked out. All of a sudden, he’s all for dither and delay.

Widely scorned, the long-term approach is so-far untested; Jeremy Hunt, former Conservative Health Secretary, has deemed it irresponsible and unconvincing, whilst even the USA has announced that it will soon close its borders to UK residents. Hundreds of doctors, scientists and public health experts have written to the UK government, urging it to change its strategy. Organisations and businesses across the UK, thankfully, have woken up to this governmental inaction and are independently cancelling large events or asking their workforce to work from home.

Unilever has asked its office staff to work remotely, whilst the Football Association, the Premier League, the English Football League, the FA Women’s Super League and the FA Women’s Championship have cancelled all events until at least the start of April.

Amongst UK universities, the reactions to the Covid-19 pandemic have been sporadic, overly cautious or non-existent. Cambridge in particular is seriously lagging behind. It is hard to imagine how the student body, especially those internationally based, could feel at all supported by the university when the institution only speculates that it will have come to some sort of decision by 31st March, midway through the Easter holiday. The university has been approached for comment.

The lightness with which this global pandemic is being handled at Cambridge University is frankly embarrassing. The acting Senior Tutor at Queens’ College, Martin Dixon, thought it appropriate to inform the student body of his college that ‘being a student at Cambridge causes people to hold you in high regard.’ Therefore, he goes on, ‘a kind word, a simple act of support, a calming of panic, can have a profound effect on those around you. You may not want this responsibility, but you have it.’

Problematic on numerous levels, particularly jarringly in its celebration and encouragement of archetypal condescension towards non-Cambridge students, this statement emulates governmental non-action in drawing the responsibility for leadership away from college authorities and thrusting it instead at the individual. 

This disturbing lightness, however, is also mirrored in responses from the student body, whose true colours have become uncomfortably visible over the past month. In the past week, whilst King’s Mingle, a John’s bop, a MedSoc and VetSoc silent disco, a TedEx Cambridge conference were all cancelled in light of Covid-19, Girton’s Spring Ball committee pushed ahead with their 900 guest event, justifying their decision ‘on the basis of prevailing PHE guidance on large public events, and in the light of the updated UK Government advice following today’s meeting of the COBRA committee.’

Even though the email in which this information appeared also banned anyone with a cough or high temperature from attending the ball, this entirely ignores that the virus can be carried without any symptoms for up to 14 days. After Girton Spring Ball’s committee announced on the evening of 12th March that the ball would go ahead the following day, students flocked to Ticketbridge in order to bid for tickets to the ball, lightheartedly joking for instance, “What’s the difference between coronavirus and me? I’m not going to Girton spring ball. Let’s change that folks.”

It has become apparent how little care is shown for how the virus can be passed from low-risk individuals, who continue to disregard the dangers of Covid-19, to those much more threatened. Don’t think only of your own family members; you don’t know whether your friends or housemates, who are about to go home, have family members over 60 or with pre-existing health conditions.


There is a worrying level of disparity between responses to the virus in Cambridge. Some colleges have been far more outspoken than others about the likelihood of a suspension of teaching and examinations in Easter term. Churchill sent out an email advising that its students “should probably take everything with them” this holiday, a mere hint at the possibility that a return after the break is unlikely. It also very confidently assumes that students, sent this information at the end of term, would so easily be able to pack up all their belongings and take them all on whatever public transport is necessary to get home. 

How ironic that in feigning an attempt to prevent mass hysteria, the UK government, and all institutions that doggedly hold onto governmental advice before taking any action, are causing so much more stress for individuals left to protect themselves against the virus. Navigating a space of enforced ignorance and non-information is at least indicative of the importance of individual solidarity. Just because the guidelines from Public Health England (PHE) have not banned large-scale gatherings does not mean that it is non-problematic to host large events.

The UK government’s herd immunity approach works on the calculation that 70 per cent of the population will become infected. Their guidelines, therefore, are not to be trusted as the authoritative voice on how to stay safe from infection. Now, more than ever, it is important to think globally, as well as locally. If ‘nudge theory’ were a sensible method of dealing with a rapidly worsening pandemic of Covid-19, the UK would not be standing alone in its defence.

Cambridge University, by which I mean its students, staff and leadership, must do more and do better. So far, the University has acted far too slowly and with disastrous uncertainty, leaving countless international students in the dark about accommodation over the break, and imposing on students serious anxiety about how to approach revision for exams that might go ahead or be postponed, cancelled or held online.

All that has become clear is that, whilst we must campaign for better management of this pandemic by authorities, we cannot rely on our government, university or college to know how to act.