Glasgow University officials are accused of acting negligently as they received complaints ahead of Freshers' Week disaster and failed to implement safeguards.
The Glasgow Guardian has received confirmation that concerns were raised about the University of Glasgow’s Freshers’ Week prior to the event, as it has emerged that MSP Sandra White contacted the University on behalf of students and parents and that student unions had also issued warnings ahead of time.
As cases continue to rise and the conditions for students in halls worsen, questions have been asked about whether the chaos that ensued could have been prevented. Recent events have caused students to suggest the University was "negligent" and call for further compensation, with students protesting the University's actions by taking part in a rent strike. While the University has given a four-week refund and a £50 stipend for students in halls, many have claimed this is not enough based upon the risk the University put students in. The University alleges that they followed the guidelines of the Scottish government and did not act negligently based upon their advice.
However, in an exclusive interview with The Glasgow Guardian, Ms White, an SNP MSP, said that she raised concerns about the University’s accommodation and about the safety of Freshers’ Week itself before the event took place.
In our interview, she stated: "I was quite concerned, and had a number of students contact me with their concerns." The University confirmed they received this report and decided to go ahead with Freshers' Week anyway as they were adhering to government guidelines and there had been a demand for Freshers' Week events.
It has also been found that an issue with Freshers' Week was raised in a Zoom call with the student bodies, prior to the week's beginning.
Laoise McWilliams, QMU vice president for membership, clubs, and societies, raised concerns, stating: "I was worried about halls and concerned that students would not be allowed to move in early to allow adequate time to isolate before Freshers' began."
She made this complaint weeks prior to Ms White’s complaint. She raised this with Liam Brady, SRC president. Brady confirmed to The Glasgow Guardian that he had been told by the University that students were allowed to move in early if they were required to do so, however, there was no requirement for most students to self-isolate.
While the University allowed students to move in early to self-isolate, there has been criticism for not making the isolation period mandatory for all students living in halls before Freshers'. Even now, many students living in halls are not required to isolate despite likely coming in contact with someone who has been traced or tested positive.
When asked why the University did not enforce a stricter isolation period for all students, David Duncan, the University’s chief operating officer, said: "I think it would have been very hard for us to second guess the public health authorities and to make up our own rules."
There has been further criticism of the procedures implemented within halls. If parties happened, living support assistants (LSAs) were instructed to contact security who sent the residents text messages instructing them to disband the party. If the residents ignored this, security would attempt to break it up. In cases where they were unable to control the situation, the police would be called for assistance.
An incident occurred in Murano where an estimated 120 students were at a single party which required police attention according to residents. Theo Lockett, a Murano resident, described what unfolded: "[The police] were there every night, I remember it was weird by the end of the week because I would stop and think, 'I haven't seen any blue lights.'"
Theo is now in a flat where six out of 10 in his flat have tested positive.
Cairncross also had an incident that required police intervention. An anonymous LSA criticised the procedures for breaking up hall parties, explaining: "There were parties going on every night...the procedure wasn't helping as they would kitchen hop." They went on to explain LSAs and security could not control parties as they would move from flat to flat and that the process would restart each time they moved.
Mr Duncan argued that there was nothing more they could have done, stating "I'm struggling to think of other policies that we could have or other approaches that we could have used that would have had a better outcome."
There was also an alleged failure of policy about containing the virus within a singular hall. One fresher in Queen Margaret, Katia Folman, claimed the University allowed the transfer of a Murano resident into Queen Margaret without checking for symptoms. A few days later, that resident allegedly tested positive.
She explained her frustration: "We would not be here in this situation if the University responsibly transferred students between accommodations only after getting a negative test result."
Mr Duncan defended the decision by citing the advice given by the government: "I suppose it's the same answer as to why didn't we test everybody before they came or isolated everybody when they arrived. That those policies simply weren't in place and didn't seem to be proportionate, but if that had been the requirement of public health authorities and if that had been the approach across Scotland, then, of course, we would have followed those policies."
A Scottish government spokesperson defended this advice saying: "The clinical advice we have received recommends that we test symptomatic individuals as that is the most effective way to contain the virus."
Student unions mostly felt in the dark about the development of the outbreak. As Ruaraidh Campbell, QMU president, noted: "In Freshers' Week, at least, they kept us notified of those parties promptly, same/next day, however, until Wednesday [23 September the week after Freshers'] we had no knowledge of any Covid outbreaks resulting from them."
While other unions did not comment on the information they were provided, Freshers' helpers from both GUU and SRC claim their unions did not tell them about the Murano parties. Many said they found out about the parties and police interventions through social media or word of mouth, but with no confirmation about the severity of the situation.
Residents in halls contacted by The Glasgow Guardian said they were aware of three cases by the end of Freshers' Week, but advice about isolating in halls had not been given until nearly a week later. The University claims they found out about cases in halls at the same time; at the end of Freshers' Week.
However, as Mr Campbell said, student unions apparently had no knowledge until nearly five days later, as the University failed to report cases to them.
Students we spoke to say they were unaware that classes would be conducted online before making their deposit. Theo Lockett explained: "When the deposit was put down there was still the idea of mixed learning being branded about."
He continued to say that he only found out about his year-long remote learning after enrollment. Other students say they "felt pressured" to come to Glasgow even despite them asking if it would be permissible to study from home.
Mr Duncan responded: "Some people may experience that as pressure, but I wouldn't describe it as that. I think we have encouraged people, but we've left people with the choice to make for themselves...I think we were always pretty clear that a significant portion of teaching was going to have to be online."
Mr Duncan claimed the University was right to bring students back: "We know from surveys that we did over the course of the summer that many students wanted to come to university to go to the university towns and cities, rather than work, in their parents' bedrooms or from home."
The University has been accused by freshers of pushing people into halls for monetary incentives. Mr Duncan again deflected this notion referring to the surveys: "We have not been driven by financial incentives. We have done it to respond to student demand as we said earlier, we did surveys in the summer."
When asked to present the survey, he stated: "To be honest, I don't know if it was written up as a survey. I think it was admissions people phoning around talking to agents or talking to candidates and I don't know if it's actually been written up in a way that we could share."
When asked if the University acted negligently, as posed by UofG Rent Strike, Duncan responded: "No, I don't think the University acted negligently. I think the University has acted responsibly throughout this in concert with public health authorities and government advice."
A Scottish government spokesperson reiterated that students can help, saying: "We encourage students who are able to download the Protect Scotland app to do so. Testing capacity is being constantly expanded, with walk through testing centres now available in Glasgow, St Andrews, Aberdeen and Edinburgh, and more to follow.”
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