'They were out pulling, dancing and flirting, bringing people into the flat, going to parties'

We spoke to four students inside MMU's controversial lockdown

Good evening Millers - we don’t normally email you this late but The Mill’s Mollie Simpson just sent this brilliant report about what’s going on inside the extraordinary lockdown of 1,500 students at MMU, and it’s well worth reading.

She spoke to four fresher girls who are living in the two locked-down blocks - and they have very different perspectives on the situation. Two of them seem to be enjoying the adventure of it and settling down to party with other flats in their halls. On the other hand, one student Mollie spoke to has strong Covid symptoms, resents her flatmates for partying and bringing people back to their rooms and says she is utterly miserable.

Before we get to Mollie’s story, don’t forget that for every 50 new members who sign up we are giving out 10 more free accounts to local journalism students and sixth formers, so you’re not only supporting quality journalism in Manchester but also inspiring the reporters and writers of tomorrow. Here’s the button to sign up now…

By Mollie Simpson

“Tonight, it’s my flatmate’s 21st birthday so we are doing him a nice dinner and stuff, dressing fancy and getting drunk,” Jamie told The Mill earlier today. She’s a fresher at MMU who comes from Birmingham and seems like the typical edgy girl who will fit in well in Manchester - styling herself in Urban Outfitters and Filas.

The problem with their night-out plans tonight is that they aren’t allowed out. Or maybe they are now? It’s a changing situation. Jamie lives in Cambridge Halls in the city centre, one of the two MMU accommodation blocks that has been put into lockdown after Manchester’s public health authorities noticed a sudden spike in Covid-19 cases - 137 as of Saturday, across the two halls. It means that on Friday, about 1,500 students received emails on Friday telling them to self-isolate in their halls for two weeks.

The first Jamie heard was when security guards stopped her going shopping. They said if she left, she wouldn’t be able to come back in. “I found out about the lockdown when I got stopped on my way out shopping as I was running out of food,” she says. “Security didn’t let me go. So now I am waiting until Wednesday for more food to arrive from Asda.” She says she ate a wrap with a sprinkle of cheese last night.

As reports of security guards surrounding the halls began to circulate this weekend, prominent lawyers questioned on what basis the university can keep the students locked down. The human rights barrister Adam Wagner suggested on Twitter that the university might be risking falsely imprisoning its students.

A few hours ago, MMU released a new statement that seemed to acknowledge that they had no legal basis to stop students from leaving if they wanted to. “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,” a spokesman said. The university says it is “currently developing an additional package of care and financial support” for the locked-down students, and sprinkled its statement with warm words of sympathy and concern.

Lea, a fresher who lives in Birley Halls, the other locked-down fresher block, was also prevented from leaving by security. She is a sociable and sporty student who sounded calm and relaxed about the situation when we spoke on the phone earlier. “I tried to go out and this security guard stopped me,” she told The Mill. “I told him I’d left some clothes in the washing machine at the laundry, just around the corner from Birley Halls, and he said I wasn’t allowed to go.”

She says her freshers’ experience got off to a fun start, with big gatherings outside her halls where students were drinking and smoking together. “We managed to have 3 nights out before someone in our flat tested positive for corona, so we all had to isolate for 10 days,” she says. “Then, as soon as we came out of that isolation period, on Friday MMU announced a lockdown across student halls.”

Some students have now left the halls to go home and were told they couldn’t come back for two weeks, Lea says. But for those who stay, there is now plenty of mixing among the different flats. “We’re still allowed to go out in the smoking area and mix there,” she told me. “There were a few gatherings there, people drinking beers and chatting, security didn’t seem bothered by it. Then the press turned up last night to take pictures and security told us to go inside, saying it ‘didn’t look good’, us all being outside socialising.”

Security guards standing outside the halls, taken by one of the students

Lea tells me that once they realised different flats in the locked-down blocks could now mix, the mood started to lift. “One of my mates said: ‘That’s not too bad, we can have flat parties now’. And suddenly we all relaxed and felt less alone. We have loads of alcohol leftover from the previous week. The atmosphere is more social if anything. Everyone’s really looking out for each other and being really nice. I’m glad I decided to stay because it’s ended up being great fun.”

Jamie also sounds excited about the inter-block mingling. “We just had an update that all of our hall is treated as a bubble so we can socialise with other flats which means flat parties! That’s really exciting,” she says. “Now I know that I’ll definitely start socialising with other people, which I haven’t had the chance to do before.” Starting with the 21st birthday dinner tonight.

Jamie and Lea sound positive, but not everyone shares their enthusiasm for the lockdown. Eva, an 18-year-old from Spain has caught Covid and is suffering from strong symptoms. “I have the virus and I’m suffering because my flatmates didn’t listen to me,” she told me today. “I can’t breathe, I can’t taste or smell, my body hurts and I have a lot of pressure building in my head.”

Eva says she was concerned about the spread of the virus from the beginning of freshers’, two weeks ago, but her flatmates seemingly were not. “I didn’t go to any flat parties or pubs during freshers, but my flatmates did,” she says. “We had a few drinks in the flat together but I didn’t join them going out. They’re nice people but I’m pretty introverted and they’re the opposite. Since day one I was saying we should be careful. They were out pulling, dancing and flirting, bringing people into the flat, going to parties and massive gatherings outside.”

When we spoke, she sounded miserable. “I feel trapped here, and very let down by the uni,” she says. “I’m not mixing with my flat and trying to avoid them as much as possible. I’m desperate to move out but I can’t go home because my parents live abroad.”

Whereas the inter-halls mixing counts as a positive for Jamie and Lea, it worries Eva. “The university still isn't really enforcing it and there’s still gatherings in the smoking area and different flats are mixing,” she told The Mill. “It’s going to spread like wildfire throughout the halls. I think individual flats should be locked down instead.”

Another student, 18-year-old Ruby from Wakefield, has enjoyed freshers’ week but is worried about the new restrictions. “People are angry, writing messages on windows, mostly against the government and the university,” she says. “I’ve seen one today that says HMP MMU (Her Majesty’s Prison MMU) but the university told them to take them down. Our entire flat tested negative two days ago and we still have to isolate. We’re worried about getting food in.”

This evening, MMU also u-turned on its message about signs after a backlash online, tweeting:

What could the university be doing better? Lea tells me food supplies are low, and they have maintenance issues. “The university organised 45 more delivery slots per week with ASDA, but there’s 1,700 students here, so that’s not really enough, is it? I think the uni could help us out more with food.” She says bins are overflowing and a radiator in her flat has burst. “On Friday, a man came to fix it, but no one has come to clear up the water yet. Now we’re in isolation, they’re not sending anyone, so our carpet is really wet.”

Today Vice-Chancellor Professor Malcolm Press said in a statement:

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. The reason for this decision was the rise in the number of COVID-19 cases, with 127 students testing positive for the virus, and the need to protect our wider community.

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.

Lea and her flatmates feel determined to not let self-isolation spoil their fun. Over the next week, she plans to get drunk in the kitchen, watch some TV and find some flat parties. “We feel like we might as well make the most of it, go to some parties, there’s nothing else to do anyway.”

Jamie intends to make the most of the lockdown and bond with the students in her flat. Ruby and her flatmates have bought Twister and Monopoly to fill the time. Meanwhile, Eva tells me she’s staying in her room.

We changed the names of students in this story to allow them to speak freely.

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