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Driving home for Christmas: how has Covid affected students’ return home?

While the pandemic has forced other celebrations to be put on hold, there is one thing that is not stopping travel, and that is the Christmas holidays. While many Britons have decided to stay put for the holidays as a precaution from the increasing Coronavirus cases, many students across the UK have had no other choice but to go home.

The government, in preparation for the mass movement of young people across the country, set up a “mass exodus” travel window in early December for students to make it home. Through this system, rapid Covid tests were distributed to universities at the end of November so that students would be tested before their return to their families.

Students with negative test results were given a window between 3 and 9 December to travel. On the other hand, students who tested positive would return home after a two-week isolation period. Michelle Donelan, the Universities Minister, stated that this strategy meant that students posed “a much-reduced risk to their loved ones and their community”.

Generally, the mass testing programme was considered a success for British students travelling within the UK. A third-year student at Warwick, who has asked to remain anonymous said, “the mass testing programme for me meant that I was able to go home less anxious and more reassured that I wasn’t bringing anything home to my family, which is a huge concern for me”. Not only did this scheme provide reassurance, but also efficiency. The student continued: “The system in itself worked well, and was quick and efficient – both times I was in and out in less than 10 minutes. I received my test results within 45 minutes both times…it was a good way to make sure we were all keeping our friends and family safe who we were returning home to.”

I haven’t been home since September and I miss my parents

– Warwick Student

The Boar Features thought it interesting to see how Warwick students felt about heading home for Christmas, and what options were made possible for their journey home.

In a survey conducted by The Boar, 93.5% of participants said they were travelling home for the holidays. 5.9% stated they were not, while the remaining 1.3% of students said they were “unsure”. Those who answered “yes” to returning home stated it was mainly to see their families. Interestingly, many commented that it would be the first time seeing their family in a prolonged period of time, hence why it was so important for them to make it home. One participant said, “I’m definitely wanting to see my family over Christmas, especially because lockdown restrictions made it harder for me to go back during reading week as I normally would”, while another student mentioned that, “I haven’t been home since September and I miss my parents”.

Clearly, going back home for the holidays seems all the more important for students this time around, given that Covid restrictions have made it harder for them to see their loved ones as regularly as they would have liked to. This makes it reassuring to know that the government’s provision of mass testing has made it possible for those who wish to spend the Christmas break with family and friends to do so. This comes after speculation in October that the government would not allow students to return home at the end of their first term.

However, participants who answered “no” or “unsure” in the survey question asking if they were planning to head home for the holidays, had one thing in common: they were all international students. Their reasons for being hesitant to travel varied. While one student said they did not want to risk catching the virus on a flight back to their home country and spreading it to their family, other students mentioned the expense of plane tickets as a result of limited flights in the pandemic, as another factor stopping them from travelling. One student said their flight home was five times more expensive than normal.

Flight availability was also an issue, with some flights being reduced to once a week, according to one participant. Another student mentioned that despite always travelling from Birmingham airport, which is the nearest airport for Warwick students, flights to their home country had been completely stopped and now had to travel from Heathrow airport. This would add to their travel expenses further as they had to spend money on train fares.

if Corona was dealt with better, I definitely would have gone home this Christmas

– Ian, Warwick Student

Ian, a third-year student from Malaysia, has decided to stay in the UK over the Christmas break. His reasons are mainly due to concerns over travel bans. “At the start of the whole thing back in March, I assumed that the UK would be better suited to handle the virus compared to my home country, but I was clearly wrong about that, and by the time I realised, there were travel bans all around. For Christmas, I was more worried about not being able to return if I went back if there was another travel ban…if Corona was dealt with better, I definitely would have gone home this Christmas.”

Several students participating in the survey also referred to the fact that many countries are asking for a negative PCR test upon arrival, as well as other entry requirements such as a two week isolation period following their journey home. This has raised other issues for international students, since the rapid Covid tests provided by UK universities are not accepted in several countries. This has meant that many students have had to make their own arrangements to get tested for Covid. While other services, such as the NHS, do provide free Covid tests, students cannot turn to this option as they are only offered to those who are experiencing symptoms.

Students have had to seek out private tests instead, which include a travel certificate alongside the negative test result. These can vary from £120 to £345, depending on the clinic, and some students simply cannot fund these added travel expenses.

36.4% thought that the government’s policies towards international students were poorly thought out

Undeniably, heading home for Christmas has been far more challenging for international students than for those traveling within the UK. So, how did Warwick students feel about this? 36.4% thought that the government’s policies towards international students were poorly thought out. “I don’t know about the situation in detail but there does not seem to have been sufficient support for students in this situation with flight prices and availability being affected in many cases, which the government does not seem to have taken account of”, one student commented.

Another participant said: “I am not an international student but from what I read on the Warwick covid test booking website it seems that the university is not providing the PCR tests needed for international students to fly back. I find this incredibly unfair to the international students who came to the UK to study and are not being helped by the uni to get home especially when tests are being provided for students travelling home in the UK. If the issue is too much money for those tests then why not test the national students with the swab tests once each (not twice) and spend the saved money on the PCR tests for the international students?”

For several different reasons, many students will not be going away for the Christmas holidays. So how does the university plan to look after these students? On the Warwick University Website, there is information on Christmas household bubbles for those staying on campus, and there are online activities in place for students to join, including a carol and Christmas service, as well as a virtual “Eat and Meet” event on Christmas day. Students on campus are also being given free access to the university’s sports facilities during the Christmas period.

Ian, however, who lives off campus, has said “I feel like I’ve just been left alone…There has barely been any support in the term so its less support than that now”.

Over recent weeks Student Newsletter emails have been reaching out to encourage all members of our student community to ask them if they are staying on campus or locally over the Christmas period

– Warwick University

The Boar Features got in touch with the university for a comment on support that is being provided for students who are staying put during the holiday season. “Over recent weeks Student Newsletter emails have been reaching out to encourage all members of our student community to ask them if they are staying on campus or locally over the Christmas period so that we can let them directly know all about what is going on and available for them over the Christmas holiday until January 5th 2021,” the university responded. They also added that the Warwick Wellbeing Support Line remains open during the holidays from Monday to Friday, while out-of-hours support from TogetherAll will be available for support at any time of the day or night.

While everyone has been impacted by the pandemic in one way or another, students have had to bear their own burdens this term. From the development of a nationwide mental health crisis among young people, to the loss of the student experience as a result of social distancing, the lead up to the Christmas holiday has not been so merry. And while government efforts have been in place to ensure students make it home for the holidays safely, some have undeniably been left behind.

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