All students returning to Murray Edwards this term are encouraged to minimise contact with each other at least until receiving a negative Covid-19 test.Cmglee/Wikimedia Commons

With Lent Term 2021 online, many Cambridge students have remained at home this term. However, Cambridge colleges have welcomed back some of their residents, including those returning for health and safety reasons.

Many of those coming back have been expected to self-isolate, at least until receiving a negative Covid-19 test. However, there seem to be discrepancies between different college expectations and provisions for self-isolation upon returning to Cambridge.

In response to Varsity’s questions about the procedures in place for students returning to Cambridge, Fitzwilliam College stated: "Government advice is very explicit that until mid-February at the earliest, travel should be for essential reasons only: students currently resident in College accommodation should stay here, and most of the students currently away from Cambridge are expected to study at home this term.

“There are a limited number of exemptions, and Fitzwilliam students have been asked to complete a form if they meet the criteria of these exemptions and wish to return. Requests are reviewed individually by Tutors.”

The College added that all international students “must comply with current government regulations regarding quarantine,” but that “students wishing to take private testing to reduce the time of mandatory quarantine are permitted to do so.”

All Fitzwilliam students in residence this term can expect catering services, access to the library and outdoor spaces, and pastoral support.

Murray Edwards College explained to Varsity that it expected 120 students (a mix of undergraduates and postgraduates) to be resident in college accommodation over the course of Lent Term.

Following the UK government’s suspension of ‘travel corridors’ on January 18th, all those arriving at Murray Edwards from “outside the UK, Ireland, the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man are required to self-isolate for 10 days.” The college has advised all returning students (domestic and overseas) to “minimise in-person social contact” until they received a negative COVID-19 test result.

Like at Fitzwilliam, a negative coronavirus test can reduce the length of mandatory quarantine for Murray Edwards students arriving from abroad, but these must come from one of the government’s ‘test to release’ scheme suppliers.

Murray Edwards noted that “all students resident in College in Lent Term will continue to be supported” and are encouraged to find self-isolation supporters who can assist with food delivery and library access.

Meanwhile, Clare Hall has been particularly praised for its response to the disruption that COVID-19 has caused its students. Since the first lockdown, it has been highly commended for its handling of coronavirus restrictions by its students. Back in April 2020, students thanked Clare Hall staff for their work in a video circulated on Facebook.

Some 65 of the 120 students in residence at the postgraduate college remained in accommodation over Christmas. Clare Hall told Varsity that “of the remaining 55, some 15-20 students have so far requested to return. Of those, at least 10 have been given permission to return in January.”

Clare Hall is working with the other students to support them remotely, with a plan for staggered return in February. The College also plans to ship study-essential belongings to students unable to return to the UK.

Like the other colleges contacted by Varsity, Clare Hall requires all returning students from outside the British Isles to isolate strictly for ten days on arrival.

Prior to recent updates from the UK government, those who could guarantee complete isolation for 10 days prior to travel as well as private means of transport were allowed to move directly into shared housing. However, the mandatory quarantine has since been amended to include all returning students,  even those with a negative coronavirus test taken prior to travel.

Clare Hall was also very specific in outlining the support system in place for self-isolating students. Students will “receive their own bespoke room (not a room in a shared house) with a bathroom and in many cases a kitchen or kitchenette”.

“College catering can be delivered to the door, as can deliveries from supermarkets. A support volunteer is always advised, but the staff (Porters, Catering) will help if this is not possible. Porters will check in at least once per day by phone to ensure the student is feeling okay and see if they need anything more (books, stationery, etc), and the Porters’ Lodge is available 24/7 for support and problem resolution,” the College continued.

Meanwhile, Caius Senior Tutor, Dr Andrew Spencer informed Varsity: “Gonville & Caius College has welcomed 265 students (167 undergraduates, 98 postgraduates/clinical medics) back to College accommodation at the start of Lent Term. We are following Government, University, and College regulations governing Covid-19.”

He went on to say that “the physical and mental wellbeing of our students is of paramount importance,” and that the College has “procedures in place for cases of isolation, as we have in previous terms during the pandemic.”

At King’s College, returning students are expected to isolate for ten days “subject to the mandatory self-isolation regulations set out by the UK government.” Those not required to isolate are, like at Murray Edwards, encouraged to minimise social contact until testing negative for COVID-19.

King’s emphasised to Varsity that “those returning from overseas will continue to have access to a designated outdoor space and have been contacted about their requirements for practical support.”

However, when asked about their experience of self-isolation, a European student at King’s told Varsity that “it kind of felt like [the College] forgot about it.” They stated that the College did not mention the requirement to isolate so “I was the one informing them that I’ll be self isolating for 10 days upon arrival.”


Mountain View

Students speak out against disparities in returns policies

While in self-isolation, the student was allowed to use the kitchen and go for walks on College grounds for two one-hour-long allocated periods during the day. They were also allowed to socialise with people in their household as long as they “wore a mask and respected social distancing”.

When asked about the pastoral provisions available, the student said that “except for the email I received for help with grocery shopping, college hasn’t really contacted me otherwise to offer any other type of support.”

They also shared that they were “reluctant” to email their tutor for support because “when I asked for permission to return to Cambridge (as staying at home would have been detrimental for both my studies and mental health) I received a long email informing me of the "horrible" state of affairs in Cambridge at the moment.” They recalled being given reasons ranging from Cambridge being a “ghost town” to the “dodgy wifi”.

A student at Christ’s also recalled being confused about their College’s return policy, saying that “the decision on who has been permitted to return has seemed arbitrary and dependent upon who each individual tutor is.”

The student returned to Cambridge from the UK but was still required to isolate until they received a negative test. Members of the same household were expected to isolate from each other, which the student claimed was “impossible due to the size of our kitchen and bathroom.”

They also originally believed they would be required to isolate for the full 10 days but received an email from the College confirming they could leave isolation upon receiving a negative test. According to the student, “it seems clear that different departments within college have varying ideas of the rules on returning.”

By contrast, one student who came back to Murray Edwards from China in October said that their “experience was really positive”, despite the requirement to quarantine for 14 days.

They told Varsity that “my college took care of me well”, providing them with a variety of amenities including changes of bedding, a small heater, a mini-fridge and a kettle. The student claimed that “communications went smoothly with the college” as they received hot food every day. The College even paid for a taxi to pick them up from the airport.

The student has remained in Cambridge since their return in October and gave “huge thanks to those at Murray Edwards College who took care of the students staying over Christmas into Lent!”

Colleges have had to adapt to changing government guidance on travel in light of the UK’s third national lockdown. The number of new infections in Cambridge has recently started to fall, with the most recent complete figure of 60 new cases recorded on 19th January, down from a peak of 168 on 29th December.

Christ’s College was contacted for comment.