Medical student at UK’s Cardiff University speaks to the Global Workers’ Inquest

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My first experience of universities was their indifference to human life. Despite the COVID-19 virus having killed over 40,000 people by the start of September 2020, they insisted on the mass movement of over a million students and university workers into crowded campuses.

The rise in cases after the earlier summer holidays prompted national restrictions to be reintroduced, limiting private gatherings to six people. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson made sure that campuses were exempt from this rule, declaring that “opening universities is critical”.

Thus, with the promise of “COVID-secure” learning environments, the UK’s biggest annual migration began. This included a total of over 30,000 Cardiff University students moving into shared accommodation within the space of a week. With no option to work from home or defer our application, we were forced onto highly disrupted courses, in a breeding ground for a deadly virus, and had to pay £9,250 a year in tuition fees for it!

Mass student migration in September 2020

Government guidance at the time maintained that there was no evidence that face-to-face teaching was unsafe if precautions were upheld. So the medical school at my university proceeded with a “blended learning” approach—a mix of face-to-face and online learning. Students were not notified of what this meant. We weren’t given our timetable until days before starting, and even then it would be regularly updated, sometimes the night before.

They’d kept us in the dark about the reality of our teaching sessions: a lack of mass testing for students, lack of social distancing, and lack of PPE while training.

The Medical Schools Council justified this by stating that “it may not always be possible for students to observe rules around social distancing in these environments (clinical placements). However, any risk this poses is ‘outweighed’ by the benefit to their education”. Cardiff medical school took this further by repeating the government mantra that students are young and not at risk.

The facts prove otherwise. 54 people under the age of 24 died of COVID in 2020. 134,000 people aged 17-24 were debilitated with Long COVID as of October 2021. That’s 2.28 percent of the demographic, or one in 44.

Even if students are lucky enough to get away with mild symptoms, the same cannot be assured for their friends, family and the general public they could infect unknowingly.

An email from the medical faculty revealed the true source of these erroneous claims—government Public Health guidance that clinical placement teaching is exempt from all safety measures and that no further action is required if vague precautions are maintained as students in attendance “are not deemed to be close contacts”.

On balance, they’d rather the suffering of the population than the funding of provisions needed for a truly safe environment.

Guidance from the the Clinical Skills Centre (School of Medicine – Cardiff University)

Conditions in accommodation

Mass infection occurred within days of students studying and living in poorly ventilated lecture halls, classrooms and accommodation. The R [virus reproduction] value increased to above 1.0 in all parts of England. With an average of 60 cases a day in Cardiff alone, we went into a local lockdown by September 27, as soon as myself and all other students had moved in.

They’d effectively bound me in a contract paying over £5,000 a year in rent to be stuck in university halls. The university simultaneously abandoned all pretence of “safe blended learning”, replacing it with online-only learning for all non-clinical courses.

It was a win-win situation for universities—they could reap thousands of pounds from students trapped in university halls and profit further by switching to low-cost online learning.

In contrast, 80 percent of students were worried about coping financially, as a National Union of Students survey found.

I learnt of the distressing situation my peers were in as my course involves speaking to many different groups of students. The extent of the spread of the virus was otherwise actively concealed. Hundreds were isolating in a neighbouring accommodation block, but the University Residences didn’t share any information. The record numbers of Cardiff University infections, including 96 cases on a single day in October 2020, were only published in November, after the peak.

Talybont South University Halls Cardiff

The government and media spun the story right on its head, blaming us for the peak caused by their reckless reopening policies.

After carrying out Boris Johnson’s criminal policy to “let the bodies pile high in their thousands”, universities had the nerve to threaten us with expulsions, suspensions and fines if we broke COVID rules.

Cardiff University worked hand in glove with South Wales Police to intimidate us and create a prison-like atmosphere within our halls of residence. Our loans were used to increase CCTV presence and close off gaps in fences to prevent us leaving. We could only enter or leave after security checked our ID. Security even had powers to invade the one place we could retreat to—our flats. They’d conduct spot checks and turn cameras on students at any “wrongdoing”. Students were encouraged to report on others.

A petition that gained over 650 signatures put it well saying, “These policies are an infringement of student privacy; and have been drawn up without any consideration of the wellbeing and mental health of Cardiff’s student population.”

Students across the UK faced similar mistreatment.

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