Students caught in a Covid-19 campus lockdown in Manchester have claimed they are being falsely imprisoned, with a number of legal experts backing them on social media.
Lawyers at a chambers which specialises in human rights and civil liberties have also questioned the legality of security staff enforcing the 14-day isolation of 1,700 students at two accommodation Manchester Metropolitan University blocks.
And a Liverpool-based law firm appealed through social media to students at Birley campus and Cambridge Halls to seek its help “pro bono”, PA Media reports.
Students described being scared and confused as their accommodation was locked down on Friday after 127 people tested positive for coronavirus.
Bosses at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) told students that following discussions with Public Health England and Manchester City Council, the decision was “deemed necessary” to prevent the spread of the virus to other students, staff or the local community.
The university added: “We appreciate this self-isolation period will present difficulties for you, especially coming so soon after your arrival at the university.
“We are here to support you, and our staff are working hard with local partners to make this period more manageable for you.”
The university has since announced that students are free to leave their accommodation but “trust they will do the right thing” and continue to self-isolate.
On Sunday, Dominic Waddell, 21, a first-year filmmaking student, told the PA news agency: “I have heard people mentioning claims of false imprisonment.
“There’s a great deal of anger, people aren’t very happy with how the university’s run it, considering we’re the ones that allow them to keep running because we’re the ones that give them this money and now they’re locking us in the homes we’re paying for so it’s very frustrating.
“People are trying to make the most of it, playing board games and watching TV with your flatmates but I don’t really see how long we can keep that up with all these new people that you barely know – it’s going to be pretty difficult to keep a lifted spirit.”
Adam Wagner, a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, said he was “dubious to say the least” about the possible legal basis of the student lockdown.
He tweeted: “If there are students (or parents of students) who are being detained in their accommodation blocks by security staff, I would suggest urgently requesting confirmation of the precise legal authority they think they are acting under.”
His colleague, fellow barrister Rabah Kherbane, tweeted: “The idea of an immediate notice, large-scale effective imprisonment of first-year students, with 24-hour enforcement by accommodation security, is slightly surreal. The LA (local authority) has not clarified powers/conditions met.
″@ManMetUni please inform your students they can seek legal advice.”
The MMU branch of the University and College Union (UCU) said they had “nothing but sympathy” for the students and their families.
In a statement issued on Sunday, it said: “As a union we warned senior managers that the outcome of returning to campus in the manner they proposed would be the situation we are now seeing unfold.
“We have said this repeatedly in formal and informal meetings, and in writing. Our warnings went unheeded.”
The university says it has stepped up food deliveries in partnership with a local supermarket but said the self-isolating students were not permitted to travel to a nearby Covid-19 testing centre in Denmark Road while it works with local health services to provide alternative arrangements.
Professor Malcolm Press, vice-chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University, told HuffPost UK: “The physical and emotional wellbeing of our students is paramount. Discussions with Public Health England and Manchester City Council on Friday led to the decision to ask students living in these halls to self-isolate at short notice.
“The reason for this decision was the rise in the number of COVID-19 cases, with 127 students testing positive for the virus, and the need to protect our wider community.
“I recognise the impact that this situation is having on our students, particularly given the extremely short period of time we had to inform them of the decision. Many of them are away from home for the first time and still finding their feet. Their welfare is our top priority and that is why we have been working hard with organisations around the city since Friday evening to put in place support to help during this 14-day period.”
Press said the university is “urgently” preparing a care package which they hope will ensure students will have the essentials they require in halls, plus financial support to assist them through this challenging period.
“We expect students to follow the guidance for self-isolation set out by the government and Public Health England,” he said.
“Our staff are on hand 24 hours a day to provide support, guidance and deal with concerns. We are unable to prevent our students from leaving the halls, but our students are bright young adults and we trust that they will do the right thing.”
The vice-chancellor added: “The government places a high priority on universities staying open and delivering high quality education. Students tell us that they value the mix of online and face-to-face education and it is important that we do what we can to deliver this in a Covid-secure way. It would be unfair to expect students to put their lives on hold.
“We have switched all of our Foundation Year and First Year students to online learning for the next 14 days, and are reviewing the situation regularly. Other year groups will continue to learn in a blended way.
Press also said that some students are taking one course unit at a time and in small groups, with members of staff always remaining at least 2 metres from them, with the use of face coverings or visors, as well as other measures in place.