Amid the return of Warwick students to accommodation in Leamington, The Boar spoke to Warwick and Leamington MP Matt Western to discuss the impact of the pandemic on students and the local area.
To begin with, The Boar asked the MP about the measures in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19 from students into the local population.
“I’ve been having regular meetings with not just university or senior members of the leadership team, but also talking to community leaders too,” Mr Western said.
He added: “The key thing for me is enforcement and it is really important that, whether it be in cafes, or bars or restaurants, or in shops, that people absolutely, adhere to the guidelines that the government has set.
“I had to call a meeting about 10 days ago, with the various authorities, when there was a large group of young people standing outside Kelsey’s, to find out how that happened and ensure it wasn’t repeated.”
Turning to the possibility of students being in lockdown in their accommodation over Christmas, Mr Western said: “Students should be allowed home, they should be allowed to get home with their families. They should take all precautions when travelling, to ensure there is no risk should they be asymptomatic.”
The MP went on to share his concerns with testing in the local area and for university students: “We’ve known that universities will be going back for months and precautions and support could have been put in place.
In-person teaching is a critical part of education and is what young people are paying for
– Matt Western
“I look at universities in the United States, and they have weekly testing of all staff and all students – now this could be done here.
“The government keeps claiming it’s got huge capacity to do testing, that’s not the reality. What it should have done was put in place in every university, the capacity to do testing and to do the testing within the labs that are available on university campuses, it seems extraordinary that the most obvious thing isn’t being done.”
The Boar asked Mr Western if testing is available for students who are living in Leamington and displaying symptoms of Covid-19. He said: “It hasn’t been, I think there’s been a complete lack of a joint up system between what capacity there is and the people who need it.”
Mr Western said the local authorities are looking to establish a testing centre in South Leamington, but added that “it’s overdue”.
“It should have been there two weeks ago, ready for the student community’s arrival.”
Last week in the House of Commons (7 October), Mr Western spoke on testing facilities for students during Prime Minister’s Questions.
He said: “Our communities deserve better and more local and immediate access to testing facilities.
“In Leamington, I’m told that Deloitte will not deliver on their testing facility until the end of this month – four weeks after 7,000 students arrived back in the town of Leamington.”
I would like to see the government funding testing of all students and staff every week
– Matt Western
He posed the question to the Prime Minister: “Was the government not expecting students to return to university?”
In response, Mr Johnson said: “It is very important that students should return to university in the way that they have and I want to thank the overwhelming majority of students for the way they’ve complied with the guidance.
“Clearly there are particular problems in some parts of the country and we will be pursuing the measures that we’ve outlined to bring them down in those areas,” Mr Johnson added.
Mr Western praised the measures that have been put in place at the University of Warwick.
“I think the measures that have been put in place are very good, with the university having its own test and trace operation.
“But I would like to see the government funding testing of all students and staff every week, for the next year, that’s essential.”
The Boar asked Mr Western if Warwick should move all teaching online, after the Warwick branch of the University and College Union (UCU) and the Students’ Union (SU) demanded that the University do so.
The only way that we’re going to resolve the homelessness crisis is by building social rent council-owned properties
– Matt Western
The MP said “no” and explained that he believes “in-person teaching is a critical part of education and is what young people are paying for”.
“You need that face-to-face contact and I think that what Warwick has designed has been very good, and I think it has put in place very important safeguards as well.”
He continued: “If it comes to a point where that can’t be delivered safely, then I think it would be inevitable that the default of teaching online will be the necessary outcome.”
Mr Western said that should teaching be moved online in the event of a local or national lockdown, he hopes to find a “compromised solution” to help students who wish for their rent to be waived.
“It does seem unfair penalising students when students are simply following government guidance, doing the right thing, but then for them to suffer significant financial penalty as well.”
Focusing on issues that are more local, The Boar asked about how Leamington’s rough sleepers were helped during lockdown and if housing will continue for them.
Mr Western said that “the one thing that was positive about the government’s approach in this crisis was that they recognised the need to get rough sleepers off the streets, which they did and it proved it can be done”.
He said that “everyone was cared for and it made a massive difference”, where rough sleepers were put up in hostels and hotels.
Looking forward, Mr Western said: “We need to build more social and council housing. 21 council homes have been built since 2010 in Warwick District – that’s probably as many as there are people sleeping rough.
I really do not think it would be sensible or appropriate for students to be prevented from going home at Christmas
– Matt Western
“We need to build properties that people can live in, particularly the most vulnerable. And that’s what I’ve been calling for in Parliament.
“The only way that we’re going to resolve the homelessness crisis is by building social rent council owned properties. I believe in a housing first approach, which is to get people safe and secure in a home and then get the wraparound services around them, to take care of them and to help them through.
“What has happened, has served its purpose, it protected more people, but if you’re not careful, if funding is withdrawn, then those people will go back onto the streets and will return to living a very vulnerable life.”
Turning to the topic of the hospitality and retail sector, which has a large employee base of students, The Boar asked the MP about how he plans to help local businesses recover.
He said: “I spoke out on this last week in Parliament about the need to be much more flexible about this. Responsible cafes, bars and restaurants should not be prevented from running a viable business.
“Where there are exceptions, where people aren’t adhering to social guidelines, then those places should have their licence withdrawn for a period, or they should be fined.”
Concluding the interview, Mr Western said: “I’m there for all issues, whether it be housing related issues, landlord issues, support for mental health services, which are really in crisis as well, so I’ve been doing a lot of work on that.
“Whatever matter a member of the student community may have, please do get in touch with me.”
He ended by urging students to “do your part, take responsibility, and play your part in ensuring that all of us in our community are safe”.