Thousands of students 'trapped' amid coronavirus outbreaks in at least 30 universities
Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Daniel Hewitt
Thousands of students at dozens of universities are "trapped" in self-isolation, as coronavirus sweeps through education centres around the country.
The president of the National Union of Students (NUS) told ITV shocking stories of students having to go without food in "disgusting conditions" as security guards watch exits to ensure they stay indoors.
At least 30 universities have had Covid-19 outbreaks after ministers told students, in the face of warnings about the spread of infection, that they should relocate from their permanent residences to their student homes at the start of term.
At Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) more than 1,700 students are in isolation and will be taught via Zoom after in-person lessons were cancelled for the next two weeks.
Hundreds more are in isolation at universities in Glasgow, Exeter, and Dundee as well as Queen's University Belfast, and Edinburgh Napier following significant outbreaks and pop up testing centres have been set up to identify infections.
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Appearing on Good Morning Britain, NUS President Larissa Kennedy said: “I’m hearing from some students across the country where there are security guards outside of these blocks where students are being kept, stopping people from leaving, coming and going, where students are being discouraged from getting deliveries and told by the university that they’ll deliver food and that delivery has not arrived and so they’ve gone for the day without food.
“I’ve heard from other students who, they’ve turned up with an amount of toilet roll, told with no notice that they’re going to be locked down and wondering where the next roll of toilet roll is coming from.
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“It just feels like these are disgusting conditions for students to have been trapped in.”
She added: “But we are questioning whether this is legal, in terms of making sure that students get that access to the basic amenities that they need – to food, to toiletries and to all the things they need just to survive lockdown – and in cases where that hasn’t been the case, whether it has been legal to keep them cooped up in that way without that access to the things that they need.”
Labour's shadow universities minister Emma Hardy said students "deserve our sympathy and support rather than being condemned for the actions of a small minority" after they were criticised for socialising.
She added holding university students responsible for their isolation "is simply not accurate and it's not actually fair either".
Students in Manchester, who have a HMP MMU banner on her window, have told ITV News that isolating in a small student flat feels more like being in prison.
Asked if it feels like prison, one student said: "We have these little box rooms that we can't get out of, it's so sad."
The students, along with MPs, have been calling for a tuition fee discount to make up for the university experience they've missed out on due to coronavirus.
"We've paid for a service and we're not getting that service we've paid for - we're all online," one student told ITV News.
He said students who pay for online courses pay half as much as students who attend university in person.
Labour's shadow education secretary urged the government to “step up” testing capacity so university students are able to return home during the Christmas period.
Kate Green told ITV News students have been put in a "desperate" situation by having to isolate while at university, leaving them to feel "fearful and anxious".
She said the government must improve its testing capabilities so students can be allowed to go home for Christmas.
She told Sky News: “But the real key to this is getting the mass testing rolled out so that students can be tested, we can know if somebody is testing positive and make sure that they are isolated and don’t travel.
“But it would mean the other students would be able to get back home for Christmas and that’s why the government needs to step up too and make sure that that testing capacity is available.”
Health minister Helen Whately said the government could not rule out the prospect that university students may be unable to return home at Christmas.
"We want them to be home for Christmas. Everybody wants to come home and spend Christmas with family. We want that very much to be the case," she said.
"Christmas is some time off yet and it is down to all of us to get this under control so we can spend Christmas with our families."
Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham urged the government to provide financial support to students who've paid £9,000 and are not getting the whole university experience.
"This generation needs to see some financial support, given what they've lost out on," he told ITV News.
He revealed MMU will provide a "financial support package" to affected students and he suggested the 10pm pub curfew could be to blame for outbreaks of coronavirus.
Mr Burnham said it had resulted in people gathering in shops and homes once the bars closed.
“I received reports that the supermarkets were absolutely packed out to the rafters with people gathering,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“I think there needs to be an urgent review of the emerging evidence from police forces across the country.
“My gut feeling is that this curfew is doing more harm than good. It creates an incentive for people to gather in the street or more probably to gather in the home.
“That is the opposite of what local restrictions here are trying to do.”