‘Like hamsters in a cage’: Inside the Man Met halls where 1,700 freshers are locked down

One fresher said it felt like they were in a herd immunity experiment

On Friday, 1,700 Manchester Metropolitan University students were “abruptly” told their halls was going into lockdown for the next two weeks. Over 120 of them living in two halls blocks had tested positive for coronavirus. What followed was a weekend of chaos: Increased security patrols, parents driving for hours to drop off food, lawyers getting involved. Students put post-it note signs on their windows, saying “HMP MMU” and “Let us out!”, which the university promptly banned (they have since apologised and said students have the right “to express themselves”).

The Tab spoke to two Man Met students, both living in Birley Halls (one of the two affected MMU residences, along with Cambridge Halls). Both with positive tests for coronavirus, they spoke of a weekend of confusion followed by a resigned acceptance of the next two weeks away from the outside world – and a first year that, quite frankly, is “shit”.

This is what it’s like to be in isolation inside MMU halls right now:

‘We didn’t have any ability to pre-plan’

Anna is a first year student studying an arts subject, living in a flat of 12. She says the announcement was “abrupt”, saying “we didn’t have any ability to pre-plan or go shop.” Things are “improving now”, though.

Students can get food deliveries or order click-and-collect from the supermarket, but Anna says there aren’t many slots for this – which don’t go far, when you have 1,700 freshers to take into account. Anna and her flatmates are “having to resort to takeaways, which isn’t good as our student loans are quite short”.

Erin, a first year film and media student, found out about the lockdown online and didn’t believe it at first. She told The Tab: “At first I found out on a group chat, a few people had got the email but not everyone did. We were thinking it might not be real and just a rumour, then more people got the email, then I did and I was like ‘oh this is real then'”.

Like Anna, Erin’s running out of food. She’s going to sort out a supermarket delivery today, saying: “You can only do click-and-collect or delivery. People at reception will go and pick it up and deliver it to you, but I have no idea about that yet as I haven’t done it. I’m down to the dribs and drabs of my food.”


‘We’re allowed to leave as long as we stay within the complex, it’s like a herd immunity experiment’

In Birley, students are allowed to leave their flats as long as they stay within the confines of the gates – there are a few blocks of flats, and a courtyard. This means they can go to the gate to collect takeaways and other deliveries.

Anna told The Tab: “They’re allowing us to leave our flats as long as we’re within the complex – all the flats are allowed to mix, which sounds like some sort of herd immunity experiment.” Anna doesn’t think this is a good idea: “Loads of the flats here now have Covid, but there are some flats that don’t, so I don’t get why they’re encouraging us to mix, there could be people who are vulnerable.” However, Anna is glad they’re allowed outside, saying they’re “lucky to have an outside space” in the courtyard.

Erin’s one of two left in her flat, and she’s lonely – but hasn’t ventured outside yet. She says: “You can now leave and see other flats, you can go into the courtyard but you’re not allowed out in public. I haven’t as of yet but I will be, it’s quite lonely here.” As she’s on her own, she says: “You haven’t really got the backup of other friends to be like ‘oh let’s do something’. At the moment I’m waiting to see what happens, but obviously I probably will end up mingling with other flats at some point.”

‘The support has been shakey’

Anna says: “Apparently they’re emailing us today about a support package”, but other than that “it’s been a bit shakey”. (Since I spoke to her this morning, MMU’s VC said on Sky News students will be receiving financial support, worth more than a week’s rent.)

“There’s been absolutely no communication in terms of mental health support whatsoever, since we arrived [at the start of September, or during this new lockdown]. We’ve had no contact about mental health, which is slightly disappointing.”

Anna’s faculty are running one-to-one sessions later in the week, to make sure students are doing okay. Of any support in halls, she says: “I think there is support available but we’ve not been told how to access it. Birley are trying to help us out, they’ve put into place [shopping delivery slots], and bringing our parcels to our doors so we can still access our post. I have underlying conditions and needed medication and security were happy to go and collect it for me from the pharmacy. Some of them are doing quite well, but it felt sort of like an afterthought.”


‘It’s not what I signed up to’

All MMU first year’s lectures have been moved online for the next two weeks, whether you are isolating or not – Anna says this means students “in isolation aren’t missing out on anything”. Anna’s had online lectures, but does textiles so should be working in the studio. Instead, she’s been told to do drawing and painting from her desks – “it’s not the course I signed up to”.

Erin’s lectures haven’t quite gone to plan either – she tells me one lecturer spoke to the class on mute for half an hour. She says: “A lot of us are angry about still getting charged the full £9,000 for online lectures”.

‘All my housemates have left’

Erin has already been isolating for over a week – by the end of this lockdown, she’ll have been isolating for around 28 days. One of her flatmates tested positive for coronavirus, and after being tested, Erin was positive too. After this, a few of her flatmates went home – they live in the midlands and the north, so their parents came to collect them. But Erin’s from London, so “couldn’t go home” as her parents couldn’t get her.

She said: “I just decided to stay, and then on Friday they said there was going to be a lockdown on the halls. A few people I know left to go home, but I can’t. Also if I was to go home, I’d still be paying £6k for the year on rent [and not be living there], which I think is ridiculous. I’ve literally been doing the same thing every single day really, and decided to make a TikTok because I was bored.” She’s currently with one other flatmate, who has plans to leave this week. Erin says “you’re allowed to leave [and go home] if you get picked up, but if you enter the accommodation you have to stay in there for two weeks.”

Unlike Erin, most of Anna’s housemates are still in the flat – though one has gone home. Anna says: “As soon as we got the email, she packed her suitcase and left. She has family in Manchester so she went to go and stay with them for the two weeks.”

‘It feels like hamsters trapped in a cage’

Both Anna and Erin describe how strange their situation is. Anna says: “It does feel a bit prison-y, it’s a bit weird, like 24/7 people on the gate, not letting you out.” She says security are on the gate “all night and all day.”

“It’s a bit mental, if you think even when the UK was in its strictest form of lockdown, if you’d tested negative you could still go for a walk and still go to the shop. Here, there’s people who are negative who can barely leave their flat.”

When you go down to collect takeaways, Anna says the security make delivery drivers “put it on the floor and pass it through. It feels like hamsters trapped in a cage, being fed through the bars.”

‘May as well just crack on with it’

Anna says people are now more or less resigned to their two-week stint in isolation. She told The Tab: “We’re all just laughing about it now, initially we were all very angry and a lot of people were kicking off. But now I’ve realised there’s no point kicking off, this is just how it is, it’s not gonna change. May as well just crack on with it.”

Before the halls lockdown, they were able to have fun within the restrictions – Erin describes going to the pub and for food with her flatmates. She says: “It’s a shit first year, I’m trying to see the positives, but lockdown’s put a pause on things. There’s a lot of things you can’t do so I do feel like I’m missing out a bit.”

A spokesperson for MMU said: “Manchester Metropolitan University is currently developing an additional package of care and financial support to assist students who have been asked to go into 14-day self-isolation at its Birley and Cambridge Halls accommodation.

“The support will include the provision of food and other essential items through partnerships with local supermarkets, enhanced health and wellbeing services, and additional financial assistance.”

Professor Malcolm Press, Vice-Chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan, said: “The physical and emotional wellbeing of our students is paramount. Discussions with Public Health England and Manchester City Council on Friday led to the decision to ask students living in these halls to self-isolate at short notice.

“I recognise the impact that this situation is having on our students, particularly given the extremely short period of time we had to inform them of the decision. 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 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.”

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Banned signs and increased security: What we know about the chaotic MMU halls lockdown

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