Turkey sandwiches and bingo: what Christmas on campus will look like for students who can't go home

Helena Pozniak
·5-min read
Students get a Covid-19 test at a mass testing centre set up at the sports centre at St Andrews University, ahead of the Christmas holiday - PA
Students get a Covid-19 test at a mass testing centre set up at the sports centre at St Andrews University, ahead of the Christmas holiday - PA

The announcement of new Tier 4 regions and corresponding rules  saw many young people scrambling to get home for Christmas.  But not all will have succeeded.

The transport chaos comes on top of the programme to test thousands of students on campus before they travelled. More than 130 universities across 155 campuses signed up to the government plan to offer students mass testing with swift results so they could return safely and virus-free. 

The original timetable meant that a staggered departure could take place during December 3-9 but inevitably some were planning on staying in their student flats until this week. Now they may have missed the chance to get home until the New Year or even Easter.

What if I couldn't get tested earlier? 

The university scheme was voluntary - you didn't need to be tested in order to return home for Christmas, says the National Union of Students (NUS) - but it was recommended.  Now you might be able to get a private test from a pharmacy but anyone with symptoms should get a free NHS test as soon as possible and isolate at their current address. 

What if I test positive?

If you have Covid-19, you have a legal duty to stay put and isolate for 10 days in line with national guidelines. 

What if a close contact tests positive?

If a close contact of yours has tested positive, you’ll need to isolate for 14 days, even if you test negative (guidelines may differ around the UK). If you can’t get a test in this situation, the government says you must stay where you are during your isolation.  

Can I stay on campus or in private accommodation?

Universities and private halls are expecting more students to stay over Christmas this year. “There’s no guidance where you can stay at the moment,” says the NUS - but it’s likely students will be able to stay on in their term time rooms. Students stay on every year for a range of reasons, say the University of Sheffield, which always runs a vacation programme. Private student halls confirm they’ll stay open. 

Could it cost me extra? 

Where rent already covers July to September, students should be entitled to stay on, (though some universities contacted haven’t confirmed this). The Universities of Birmingham and Sheffield confirm  there’ll be no extra costs. Many private halls have confirmed that students are entitled to remain at no extra cost, though of course they’ll need to buy food. “No student should have to pay extra,” says the NUS, “but we’ve received no assurances from government or universities that this will be the case.”

Who else is stuck on campus?

In any year, a number of international students stay in and around campus, says the University of Birmingham, where testing starts on December 2. Students who used to live in care may stay on too, as well as those are estranged from their families. Usually students from abroad take the chance to travel - though not this year says Darren Gardner, chief operating officer at Nido Student, which provides private accommodation to some 4,500 students, half of those from abroad. “This year we anticipate having 50-70 per cent more students stay in our residences over Christmas.”

What practical support will there be?

All key services - such as rubbish collection, internet and so on should continue, but it will come down to individual universities. “Guidance has been late and scattered,” says Vivi Friedgut of student finance company Blackbullion, but students should have access to affordable food and medical care. Halls should have staff on hand and a mix of online and in-person activities. Students at private halls Calico Liverpool will get turkey sandwiches on Christmas Eve, while private halls Aparto will have concerts, bingo, and Christmas dinner goodies on the big day.

At Sheffield’s student halls there’ll be online craft, quizzes, cooking, games night sand competitions, while the library and health service there will stay open during the break, apart from bank holidays and weekends. Some libraries will close - check websites for updates. 

Earlier this year Universities UK, which represents university leaders published a checklist of basic measures that should be in place for students in isolation. 

What mental health support is available (just a helpline?)

“This year staff on site are bracing for a much greater number of students who will be feeling lonely, isolated and homesick,” says Garner. “We’ll do everything we can to keep up morale. Sheffield students’ union aims to set up a buddy scheme for students stranded onsite over the break. Private halls provider Scape Student Living offer trained mental health support and access to an online anonymous help service, and most universities will provide some online support, and there are communities such as Together All, Student Minds and Fika. “A lot of the unis Blackbullion works with are providing extra (in person) support,” says Friedgut. 

How bad can it be?

Tech-enabled spending - shopping, gambling - can get out of control, compounded by loneliness and boredom, says Friedgut. But there are helplines.  

Gamblers Anonymous offers free, confidential support to anyone struggling with gambling addiction. Email info@gamblersanonymous.org.uk or call the national helpline on 0330 094 0322.

gamanon.org.uk helps friends and families.

gamstop.co.uk allows gamblers to avoid relevant websites. 

Could I join my family after Christmas if I get a delayed test result? 

Yes - if you don’t have the virus, you can travel as long as the latest Government guidelines which are due to be reviewed on December 30 permit it - returning students are asked to avoid public transport wherever possible, and be wary of car sharing.