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The town which had no cases of coronavirus until the students went back

Did the authorities do the right thing in letting students return to Aberystwyth?

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In June, as Wales cautiously emerged from a national lockdown, Ceredigion had recorded just 42 cases of coronavirus.

Four months later that number has crept up to 163. It is a four-fold rise, yet one that has been driven in no small part by the arrival of students at Aberytswyth University during the last month alone.

Since term started in September, 35 students have tested positive for the virus.

For the first time since March, Ceredigion found in late September that it was no longer the area with the lowest infection rate in Wales. Even now, it depends whether you look at it on a weekly or fortnightly basis as to whether it is higher or lower than Pembrokeshire.

Yet it is not clear to what extent this will affect Aberystwyth. Have students brought the virus into an area which might have considered it had largely escaped the disease? Or is the outbreak largely contained on-campus and irrelevant to the vast majority of the Ceredigion population?

On Wednesday this week, of the four cases in Ceredigion, three were university students. Infection rates in the rural county are being driven by the student population.

(Image: WalesOnline/ Gayle Marsh)

On the iconic hill out of Aberystwyth, a daily struggle for many students as they make their way to lectures on the main campus high above the town, some are happy to stop and chat if only an excuse to take a breather.

Emma Campbell, a second-year student studying French and German, is from the Midlands. She said: “It was always going to happen that there would be a few more cases when students came back, coming from all over and with different people starting to mix.

“I think it was always going to happen but I think as long as you’re being careful and respectful of other people, then I don’t think it’s too bad.”

Theo Edge, a 19-year-old fresher, has travelled from the Netherlands to study English Literature at Aberystwyth, and is “terrified” at the prospect of spreading the virus.

(Image: WalesOnline/ Gayle Marsh)

Keeping his mask on despite being in the open air, he said: “People are much more lax about it here compared to home and I’m quite worried about that.”

He lives in a flat with four other students and says not everyone is following the rules. He apologises for “off loading” his worries and said he had tried to make his feelings known but there is only so much he can do.

“The ramifications for older people in the UK are not fair,” he continued. “If younger people get away with just flu-like symptoms, it’s not a fair situation. I’m very stressed and worried about getting it and giving it to somebody else. That’s terrifying.”

He had to isolate for two weeks on arrival into Wales at the start of September and thinks he should have been tested as well.

“It wouldn’t be fair for me to say it’s not OK for people to come to Aberystwyth from outside the region,” he added. “But I would say it’s not fair for people to come to Aberystwyth and behave irresponsibly.”

The question is of course, can students, many of whom have left home for the first time and are relishing the prospect of unfettered freedom, be trusted to make the right decision? Nearly all of the cases at Aberystwyth University can be traced to a single gathering described by council leader Ellen ap Gwynn as students “enjoying themselves on the beach”.

On October 6, Cllr ap Gwynn told cabinet members: “The good news is that the outbreak among the students has not spread into the community. The cases have been limited to the campus and the student houses.”

(Image: WalesOnline/ Gayle Marsh)

In Aberystwyth town, Rhian and Mark Phillips run the popular Why Not nightclub. Opening at 10pm until four in the morning, they rely on the student population to keep their business afloat. On a normal Tuesday night during the first month of term, they would expect to take in the region of £3,500-4,000.

This Tuesday night they took £210. Students certainly aren’t partying like they usually do.

“When the new regulations came in it blew it out of the water,” said Rhian with a resigned laugh. They open the club for four hours every night, taking bookings for their tables which now take up much of the dancefloor, but it’s nowhere near the same.

Their DJs have retrained to wait tables and work in the kitchen, but instead of taking home around £150 for a night behind the decks, they are on minimum wage earning £32 if they’re lucky.

“But we are so so proud of Ceredigion and the way we have all looked after each other as a community,” continued Rhian, a former headteacher at Plascrug Primary School in Aberystwyth.

“It’s a credit to the council they’ve been up there from the front and they have kept us really good. A big concern has been the students coming back.

“But we feel that it’s pretty contained. We strongly believe the 10pm curfew isn’t working. That beach party is the bulk of cases here.

“At least when they are here, they are in a controlled environment with hand sanitiser, masks and where everything is so clean. Throwing them out into the street at 10pm is an absolute nightmare. They will congregate outside which is defeating the objective.

“You know you’ve got people picking up crates on the way home, so it’s just making it worse. They congregate here and at the bottom of the pier. We see queues outside the Spar and Tescos at quarter to 10. It’s mainly youngsters and it’s a recipe for disaster.”

(Image: WalesOnline/ Gayle Marsh)

Ceredig Wyn Davies, the Liberal Democrat councillor for Aberystwyth Central, said: “During the summer there was concern in the town as to what would be the impact of returning students, would we see an increase in Covid cases in the county particularly as we had such low numbers of recorded cases. There was also recognition of the economic importance of the university to the whole of mid-Wales and not reopening the university was no guarantee that we would not have a spike anyway.”

(Image: WalesOnline/ Gayle Marsh)

Cllr Davies highlights two key points which have been observed in England and are arguably mirrored in Wales.

Firstly, many blamed young people partying for a steady rise in cases in late summer after relatively few cases when the country lifted restrictions from the first lockdown. Yet it was actually only in the last few weeks that infection rates in those aged 17-24 took off in England.

Data from the ONS infection survey seemed to show the infection growth rate had slowed down in England, perhaps even plateauing towards the end of September. But then in the first week of October, it took off again, predicting that the number of daily infections in England was more like 12,600 rather than the reported 8,400.

Perhaps the most striking details in the ONS survey are the regional divergences. Covid-19 infection curves are much steeper in the North East, Yorkshire and the North West compared to the much flatter curves in the south.

The ONS data indicates that in Wales, positivity rates may now have levelled off, although uncertainty is high.

It’s worth noting the last time the disease struck it was nationwide. The data indicates it is quite different this time round, for the time being at least. It’s also important to note the ONS survey doesn’t cover certain institutions like educational halls, which means it may not reflect the full extent of outbreaks seen in some universities.

Even so, looking at the age breakdown, the ONS data shows an incredibly steep curve for 16-24 year olds compared to much gentler curves for other ages.

Secondly, cases among university students isn’t an issue restricted to Aberystwyth – other university towns across the UK are seeing a similar spike in cases following the return of students. In Wales, the 32 positive cases at Swansea University were linked to a house party of students. Cardiff University say 211 students have confirmed cases of coronavirus in the past week.

UK wide, more than 10,000 university students have been infected with coronavirus since the autumn term began and thousands remain stranded in their halls on Covid-hit campuses. While more than 40 universities have reported cases, just four – Nottingham, Manchester, Northumbria and Newcastle – account for more than half of the figures.

An academic at the University of St Andrews has drawn a link between those areas with a high student population and higher rates of infection. Justin Ales, a lecturer in psychology and neuroscience, has shown that 114 areas in England where students make up a quarter of the population have seen a steep rise in infection rates from the beginning of September.

It was a risk that chief Government scientists were worried back in September as many students criss-crossed the country starting new courses and resuming their studies. During a SAGE meeting on Covid-19 on September 21, it was noted that the Covid-19 incidence was increasing across the country in all age groups.

The effect of opening of schools, colleges and universities has only just begun to affect this increase, the scientists noted,…

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