University officials have reassured residents in Durham that the influx of more than 17,000 new and returning students will be managed to keep the community safe.
In term time, locals living close to the city centre are outnumbered around six to four by undergraduates who have been attracted to come to one of the world’s top 100 universities.
Their arrival over the next week from around the country and abroad will be welcomed by local shops, cafes and bars as a “lifeline” through the coronavirus restrictions, one business leader said.
But Alan Doig, vice chairman of Durham City Parish Council, feared that students might be tempted to hold large house parties to make up for pubs shutting at 10pm, and nightclubs not opening.
Many first-years will live in their college accommodation but many second and third-year students will move into shared terraced houses, many in streets around the rail viaduct, where up to 70% of residents are students.
Mr Doig said: “They’re already living in a group of six and they’re going into each others’ houses and meeting up with their mates.
“Most of them are not going to get symptoms that are going to put them in bed, they are not going to see Covid is a risk to their health.”
Mr Doig, who was a professor of business in Liverpool and Teesside, said Durham’s historic city centre funnelled permanent residents and students into the same spots.
“We only have three supermarkets in the city centre, everything is focused on the Market Place, it’s a very small enclosed area, and pavements are very narrow,” he said. “It’s a fairly small environment, never designed for volume.”
He said local residents accepted the need for students to be in the city, but asked for more transparent communication with the university authorities to show what measures were in place.
Mr Doig said the university will have plans for safely operating on campus, but he wanted more information about how it will manage students’ interactions with the wider public, and what will happen in the case of a large outbreak.
Professor Claire O’Malley, pro-vice-chancellor (Global), said: “We are working closely with other agencies and services to ensure our planning is co-ordinated and we are in regular contact with local residents and representatives, including the City of Durham Parish Council, to share our planning and receive feedback.
“We are all part of the Durham community and we all have a duty to help keep each other safe.
“We are communicating regularly with our students to remind them of the latest Covid-19 guidelines and have updated our Student Pledge to reflect these responsibilities.”
It has published its communications with students regarding Covid-19 regulations on its website.
Durham City MP Mary Foy has had meetings about precautions the university is taking.
She said: “It seems they have plans in place for the students arriving and the teaching and learning.
“The big issue is how they manage the student socialisation.”
Adam Deathe, a manager with the Durham Business Improvement District, said: “To have 17,000 people come into the city and live as part of that community is a lifeline to business.
“It has never been more important to have the students here. They will be the difference between some businesses failing and surviving.
“A lot of businesses are going to spend the next eight to 12 months struggling and students are being encouraged like never before to shop locally.”
He said students volunteered to help out when lockdown began in March and were keen to help not just with their economic input but with community support.