By Paul Sandle and Ben Dangerfield
LONDON (Reuters) - For thousands of new students in Britain, their first weeks of university have been all too similar to their final weeks of school, marked by lockdowns, isolation and staring at a screen.
COVID-19 outbreaks have hit nearly 50 universities in the last few weeks, forcing students to self-isolate in halls of residence just days after their arrival.
Unions said ministers had failed to plan for what they said was an inevitable rise in cases as large numbers of students come together in halls, lectures and seminars.
Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) is one of the worst hit, with 1,700 students stuck in residences self-isolating.
First-year students, or 'freshers', living in shared university flats have drawn attention to their plight by posting messages on windows saying "Send beer" and "9K well spent", a reference to annual tuition fees of 9,250 pounds ($11,900).
Evelyn Sweeney, president of MMU student union, said students were worried about COVID and whether they would be able to go home in the weeks ahead or at the end of term in time for Christmas.
"When you've just come to university for the first time, probably in a new city that you don't know, it's a scary situation," Sweeney said in an interview.
The union is providing practical help, such as food and toiletries, and emotional support, she said. MMU has given residents a two-week rent rebate and a 50 pound grocery voucher, but she said the government had failed them.
"I feel that they've been thrown in the deep end, and students know that," she said.
Education minister Gavin Williamson said this week colleges were "very well prepared" to handle any COVID-19 outbreaks.
He said testing was being ramped up and universities were making sure that self-isolating students were properly cared for, and could access food, medical and cleaning supplies.
Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), which represents more than 120,000 lecturers and other staff, said this week there had already been outbreaks at 49 universities.
"This was completely predictable," Grady said, criticising the government for encouraging the continuation of face-to-face teaching and effectively exempting universities from its advice to the rest of the population to work from home if possible.
"We are calling for default online learning where possible. We think that needs to be in place at least until Christmas."
Many of this year's new intake had already suffered in the exams fiasco in the summer, which saw grades decided by an algorithm before an outcry led to a U-turn by Williamson.
As they prepared to head to college, some felt they were already being scapegoated for a rise in cases.
Health minister Matt Hancock raised concerns last month about one million students returning to university, with the message "Don't kill your granny".
Prime Minister Boris Johnson changed tack this week.
"I want to pay a particular tribute to the students who are experiencing a first term back at university unlike anything they could have imagined," he said, adding that plans were being put in place to allow them to return home safely for Christmas.
But some students had more immediate concerns.
Joe Haslam, studying physics at Leeds University in northern England, said he was waiting to find out if he had COVID-19.
"The tests we had were home tests, so we all had to sit as a flat in the kitchen swabbing each other - so it was an unusual freshers' bonding experience," he said in a clip posted on Twitter.
(Reporting by Paul Sandle and Ben Dangerfield; Editing by Gareth Jones)