A fortnight ago, I sent a pitiful email to our printers, who have always been endlessly kind to us as a student publication, and informed them that we wanted to cancel our print run. We justified this by considering office restrictions, the impact of self-isolation, and the lack of Events, Sport, and wider news. There are opportunities though for a multimedia journalism agenda and we have more time to research stories that our print cycle makes challenging. When it is possible, we must return to the ink-stained distribution of 10,000 papers a semester, making the news and views of St Andrews accessible in the most palpable form. For that moment though, the question of whether printing was viable lingered. Was this cowardice?
Last Friday, on what would typically be the first day of our layout long-weekend, that concern was settled by the email from Principal Mapstone. The speed of change was not unexpected but, by sad absurdity, still surprised. What struck was the second sentence: “and it is very likely that we are very close to a form of further national lockdown.” Two “very”s to launch us into alertness. Surely this was not an email that was drafted an hour before. It was a headline.
The wording was not uncertain; it was to be a pre-emptive measure since, according to the principal, “a hallmark of this pandemic has been that, as a society, we have acted too slowly in the past, and thousands of people have died unnecessarily as a result.” Anders Tegnell would likely recoil at this remark, the approach of living alongside COVID seeming increasingly rational.
With this self-assured language should come an evidence-based approach. Community transmission will ripple COVID around our nation, let alone this town, for a long time to come, with many questioning the University’s decision making. Anger centred on how this lockdown was triggered with no evidence of community transmission. Speculation over whether it was to make a good impression, or whether it was based on something concrete only accelerated after Monday’s follow up email. Others suggested it was to save face in the knowledge that this was an inevitability with students disobeying guidelines. Unsubstantiated rumours naming halls as hotspots circulated. Frustration simmered at this rule by decree, with many demanding clear reasoning and not the verbiage of another lengthy email.
The guidelines will only be well-observed if the students feel united behind the University. The individual risk of COVID for our age group tends to be minimal; thus, their appeals must illustrate how our sacrifices are for the good of all. Increasingly, students online have been attacking those who attended the party and yes it was certainly a selfish act. However, it is the daily interactions of the majority of students which will make the biggest difference to cases, as seen in the total banning of home visits. We cannot feel othered from the house party “culprits” and let our own standards slip because the responsibility is communal.
Resentment against the University had already been growing due to the decision to phase in in-person teaching despite encouraging our return. Though, when it comes to coaxing students back, Queen’s University Belfast takes first prize with their chartering of flights from China.
It is easy to be sympathetic towards the University when you consider the unfolding nature of the situation and the two parties they are up against. Oh, to be a fly on the wall during a university COBRA meeting. On one side there are the students and on the other the teaching unions. For those of us in the thick of our degrees, leaving is not really a viable option, we are all a little tied down. “Teams” is good but will never be ideal. Capricious internet connections and historic hand-raising stunts conversation. When it comes to dealing with us it is a matter of our behaviour. On the other hand, the UCU has been vocal about their stance on face-to-face teaching. They have, quite rightly, been representing their members in an active manner. However, when remarks such as “universities must not become the care homes of a COVID second wave” are made, a comparison that is at once scientifically illiterate and tactless considering that 30,000 excess deaths occurred in care homes, their appeals are weakened.
The slow and steady approach of the University is sensible. St Andrews will always be the case study for the simple reason that we start before most other universities do. Acting, giving time for the impacts to become clear, and then evaluating the decision mirrors the behaviour of governments in their phased unlocking. Maybe a Government-esque infographic would assist in the messaging of the University? Early on in the pandemic, the First Minister noted that the population ought to be treated ‘like adults’ and similarly the student body should not be infantilised with an inconsistent picture of the state of things.
Science has shown that with only 8% of us showing antibodies, a surge in cases into the challenging winter months will be catastrophic. Critically, the University needs us to trust them. To earn and maintain that trust, we must know that there is a clear chain of reasoning behind their decisions; without our trust, compliance will be hard to maintain.
Considering the trials that the University have faced, their achievements and resolve have been impressive, such as housing students despite inflated numbers and maintaining essential services. However, it is inevitable that this winter will be grim, and a lack of faith will make their work harder. What we can be very sure about, is that this will be a very challenging semester for all of us.