This comment piece appeared in the Nottingham Post in October 2021.
Nottinghamshire Live writer Ben Cooper takes a look at how the relationship between students and the city was affected by covid, and how first reactions on both sides weren’t necessarily the best ones
Nottingham benefits immeasurably from the presence of its two great universities.
It is terribly sad that over the past 18 months of pain and strain, one casualty seems to have been the relationship between the 60,000 students that attend those universities, and the people for whom Nottingham is their permanent home.
In truth, as in all university cities, that relationship has always been one more of co-existence than osmosis.
As such it is fragile, and brittle, when tensions run high.
We have all been through a tense and frightening time. Many people have died; even more have lost family members, partners, children, and friends. We have all lived in fear that our dearest might be taken from us, or we ourselves might fall gravely ill.
Pent up over months and months, fear like this often expresses itself as anger. And anger always needs a target.
A year ago, in Nottingham and elsewhere, students were, without doubt, the target for much of this frustration. It’s also true that often frustration was carelessly directed at students as a whole rather than just those who were breaking lockdown rules.
A year on, the dust may not have fully settled, but we are in a more objective place to judge whether that was really fair or not.
The universities say it was not at all fair. That students were “victimised”; scapegoated for systemic failures for which they couldn’t possibly be blamed; branded by the actions of a “tiny minority” who broke the rules.
That is one view. Another is that rule-breaking – chiefly in the form of illegal house parties – was clearly identifiable as being a ‘student thing’.
Whichever view you take, there are certain unassailable facts.
This time a year ago Nottingham had the highest rate of Covid infections in the country.
Within the city, the highest infection rates were often found in the main centres of university life: Lenton, the Arboretum, the campuses themselves.
At the same time – and long into spring this year – there were numerous illegal parties running almost every night.
They were widespread, went on for months after police began issuing fines, repeatedly pleading with people to stop, and had a funny way of happening in the neighbourhoods known by anyone who knows Nottingham as being student neighbourhoods.
I live in the Arboretum area. I remember feeling palpable anxiety just walking into my local supermarket in those days.
The local infection rate was alarmingly high. The chances that in a busy shop I was going to pass by someone who had the virus but didn’t know it were extremely high.
I also remember feeling desperately sorry for the local Nottingham Trent students I interviewed on a bleak, bitterly cold afternoon in February about how lockdown had been treating them.
The pandemic denied thousands of students some of potentially the happiest times of their lives and forced them into a dreary, virtual reality version of their expectations of uni life.
This has always been a rackety neighbourhood, in every sense of the word. You don’t move here expecting a quiet life.
Countless times over the past six years I’ve been kept up till dawn by house parties which may as well be going on in my own living room.
All in all I don’t mind, because, frankly, for all its troubles, I enjoy the buzz and diversity of the neighbourhood, which the student population undoubtedly contributes to.
I felt very differently when those parties were going on expressly against – arguably with two fingers up to – the desperate urgings of the NHS, the police, the council and the population at large.
And they were. Every night, at one stage.
I’m sure many of those were small legal gatherings that got out of hand. It’s very easy to see how a few beers between friends at home could quickly escalate into a full-blown party without anyone really meaning it to. It takes a strong person at the age of 19 to be the one to call the party off.
But others clearly were planned. There were reports of outdoor lights and decks being set up in gardens; huge gatherings on The Forest and the Arboretum – which attracted national attention, and disapproval – were organised on social media.
On several occasions I saw large groups streaming along Forest Road hauling as many crates of beer as their arms could carry on their way to houses already crammed with party-goers.
They knew they were breaking the rules.
In March this year 87 fines were issued by police to people hosting or attending house parties in one weekend alone. There were so many house parties that weekend that the police issued 48-hour dispersal orders in the Arboretum and Lenton as a last resort.
They hoped that if the urgent requests for people not to host big parties didn’t work, the fines, up to £10,000 a hit, would. Neither made much difference.
The question now appears to be more one of narrative than fact. Was it fair if all students were blamed for the actions of the “tiny minority” who were going to or hosting parties? Of course not.
Was it fair for the rest of the population to feel frustrated at the fact that parties were still going on despite the rules, and the clear and provable link between breaches of social distancing and rising rates of infection in the city. I would say, absolutely it was.
Whenever infection rates rose, so, of course, did the number of deaths. The people dying weren’t on the whole the younger, healthier people breaking the rules. They were the older, vulnerable people who were doing everything they could to shield themselves from the deadly virus.
People like a man in his 90s who I spoke to early on in the pandemic. Who lives slap bang in the middle of the Arboretum area, at a junction between several roads almost entirely populated by students.
The only time I called the police about a huge house party banging on into the early hours, back in March, I did so with him in mind: the party was going on yards from his house.
Unless you live in an area for a long time, you might not notice the people living quietly in the shadows. If you have a transient relationship with a neighbourhood and its community, the people in it – especially the older ones – often fall into a blind spot of insignificance.
The repeated breaking of rules felt very much as though the feelings of whole sections of the community were being treated as insignificant. Even the most vulnerable.
I don’t mind admitting being more than a little choked up when I hung up the phone one day in February, having interviewed a woman who had lost her mother to Covid a year before.
She and her 15-year-old daughter both have compromised immune systems and were living under extreme isolation conditions. When the funeral came around her father, having said his last goodbye to his wife of 50 years, had to go home to an empty house.
When I’d asked that woman how she felt seeing people breaking the rules to have parties she said: “I think some people are very selfish. Everybody’s got to consider other people. People think they’re above it.”
Later that evening, the sounds of house parties in full swing around me took on a bitter new meaning.
Students felt ganged-up on, and defensive, at being branded, as they saw it, the main cause of all the problems. Those students who hadn’t been breaking the rules had every right to feel roughly treated when they felt they were being blamed for the actions of those who had.
The tendency to entrench into positions when you feel under fire is understandable. As Dr Paul Greatrix, registrar of the University of Nottingham told me when we met, there was “no scope for sophisticated discussion” over this most emotive of subjects. This was undoubtedly a phenomenon which students and the universities suffered from.
But to translate understandable anger at the serial rulebreaking of some into an accusation that ‘All students are to blame’ was to misread the message and the mood of the city at the time.
Too often the reaction that followed sounded very much like a full denial of the link between the breaching of rules and the tangible rise in infection in those areas.
This didn’t give people in Nottingham much hope that the parties would stop, or that the rules were going to be adhered to: if anything it sent out the rather churlish message that they’d continue, in indignant defiance.
And they did. For weeks.
That was back then. Things feel considerably less pressured now.
The universities have taken extra steps to ensure their campuses are safer than ever, and admirably, worked to rebuild trust with the local communities in which their students live. And, of course, the big change is the vaccine itself.
Just over 94% of NTU students in town for freshers week told us they’d had one or more Covid jab, a fact we were more than happy to report – contrary to rumours of us looking to ‘bash’ the universities.
If we ever have to go back into some form of lockdown we must all resist the urge to make facile statements and point fingers without knowing all the facts.
But it is arguably far more reckless to dismiss facts and common sense, when lives are at stake.
The simple truth is that breaches of lockdown rules, whoever committed them, caused the infection to spread further and faster than it would have done otherwise.
As a result, people died.
Downplaying this link, when the reality was so plain to see, created tension, bitterness, and fear among the wider population at a time when all three were already present in abundance. Carrying on with the parties created outright and understandable fury.
That’s where the anger should have been directed, rather than at the student population en masse.
It is also where more personal responsibility should have been exercised, and must in future. For the sake of the lives that were at risk at the time, and a long-standing relationship that as a city, as one, we have all gained so much from over the years.