People living in student areas in England are around three times as likely to test positive for Covid-19 as those in non-student areas, according to analysis of case figures. Around 40 UK universities have now announced virus outbreaks, with students across the country forced to self-isolate in their student accommodation and rely on online lectures.
An exclusive New Statesman analysis of hyper-local case figures across England has revealed the scale of the problem – and pinpointed, for the first time, the university towns and cities worst affected by Covid-19 in student neighbourhoods.
We used ONS classifications of local neighbourhoods, separating out those where more than half of their sub-geographies were defined as student areas at the last census. We then looked at patterns of Covid-19 in those neighbourhoods.
As of the week ending 20 September, our analysis shows an average of 1.15 confirmed cases per student neighbourhood in England, compared to 0.36 cases per non-student area. Student areas are also more likely to be represented among those recording the highest case rates.
This disparity is far greater in certain parts of the country – namely cities with strong student districts – than in others. Student neighbourhoods, including halls and inner-city areas, have been especially affected in northern university cities, in particular Leeds, Newcastle, Manchester and Liverpool.
In Leeds, reports suggest up to 38 students have tested positive for the virus, although the university has only been made aware of six cases.
The New Statesman’s analysis reveals, however, that there have been 121 cases in student neighbourhoods in Leeds as of 20 September – more than in any other local authority in England. Not all of these cases will have been students.
Nineteen student neighbourhoods in Leeds currently have more than two cases – putting it joint highest alongside Newcastle. Newcastle has seen 96 cases in student neighbourhoods so far, but Newcastle University and Northumbria University have officially confirmed 62 cases.
Manchester Metropolitan University, meanwhile, has moved all classes for first-year and foundation students online for the next two weeks. Around 1,700 university students have been told to self-isolate after 127 tested positive.
Liverpool Hope University and Liverpool John Moores University have moved most of their teaching online.
The analysis shows case rates are now rising faster in student areas than in non-student areas. In the worst-hit university cities, except for Manchester, cases also started rising proportionally in student neighbourhoods before non-student neighbourhoods.
Separate outbreak data published by PHE shows cases were rising in workplaces across the country before students went back to university – indicating they were not the cause of the rise in cases, but rather accelerated a pre-existing trend.
The alarming rise at universities and among the student population doesn’t mean everyone else is safe from the virus – as a whole, there are still more Covid-19 cases outside of student neighbourhoods than within them. There are 437 student neighbourhoods in England, compared to 32,407 non-student ones.
How our analysis worked
The analysis was carried out by examining case figures by Lower Layer Super Output Area (LSOA). This is a type of geographic area used by the census, each one containing roughly 1,500 people.
LSOAs themselves are made up of even smaller areas called Output Areas. The Office for National Statistics categorises each Output Area by the type of people who lived there at the time of the census.
We classed an LSOA as a “student area” when more than half of the Output Areas they comprised were either classed as “Inner-City Students” or “Students Around Campus” by the ONS. This allowed us to compare the “student-ness” of an area with its Covid-19 case rate – but does not allow us to say exactly how many students have been infected: not everyone who lives in a student area is necessarily a student, and students may live outside of traditionally student neighbourhoods. As well as this, new student areas will likely have developed since the last census in 2011.
This analysis is also less useful for places such as London, where students are spread more evenly across the capital, resulting in fewer student neighbourhoods. However, it does provide a broad picture of the scale and recent growth of the outbreak problem in English university towns and cities.