For first year students in accommodation, self-isolation has been a fundamental part of the freshers’ experience. While some have managed to avoid quarantining, many have not been so fortunate and have endured up to fourteen days shut in their flats. Yet, for those confined in the first months of Term One, there was a silver lining: a £280 UberEats voucher.
In anticipation of students needing to isolate, UCL devised a system to accommodate them and monitor the spread of the virus on campus. According to the university, Connect to Protect “has been designed with public health experts to help us monitor and respond to coronavirus cases at UCL and inform our testing programmes.” All students who exhibit symptoms, test positive for COVID-19, or have to isolate for any other reason are instructed to register with Connect to Protect.
For residents of UCL accommodations, enhanced procedures were put in place to provide support in isolation. The key support measures include “a free hamper of essential food and cleaning items” and “vouchers for free meal deliveries.
Indeed, as the first students registered with Connect to Protect, they became the initial beneficiaries of these vouchers.
Unsurprisingly, many of the young residents of UCL halls were overjoyed at the news of the vouchers. One student, Jael Gless, had to isolate twice; both times for being in contact with someone who tested positive. She described the uplifting effect of the scheme on her experience in confinement.
“It was the highlight of my isolation honestly… it was good to have something to look forward to… otherwise it would be quite a sad isolation.”
While Gless did not contract COVID-19 until returning home to Switzerland, she still had to quarantine for a week each time while she awaited test results. Her experience of the voucher system reflects that of many students who faced the mental and physical hurdles of confinement: the support offered by UCL improved their time in quarantine.
Although UCL undoubtedly deserves praise for its support of students like Gless, who had to isolate for longer periods, the tenability of the voucher system needs to be evaluated.
Because all students who registered with Connect to Protect automatically received vouchers, there were inevitably cases where those who only isolated for a few days were issued £280. The system evidently had no protocol for these false alarms; the vouchers continued to be valid for fourteen days from their issue date regardless of whether students were still isolating.
One accommodation resident, Celia Jey, registered that she had ordered a test but did not receive the voucher until four days later. By this point, her test result had come back negative and she no longer had to isolate. Yet, the voucher remained valid for two weeks.
However, Jey’s situation was not unusual – many others were granted £280 to spend at their will despite being able to leave their flats. It could be construed that, if UCL’s voucher fund was limited, then the allocation of vouchers to students who no longer needed them could potentially deprive students who needed the support most. Indeed, the cost of the programme was evidently unsustainable as UCL ceased to provide UberEats vouchers in mid-November, switching to a catering system instead.
While this decision may have been fiscally sensible, the transition to the new system was ostensibly abrupt, and left students feeling even more anxious and lonely in isolation.
UCL transition away from UberEats
One student spoke to The Cheese Grater about his experience during this transition period. After his flatmate had symptoms of coronavirus in mid-November, he and his flat had to isolate for fourteen days. Yet, their quarantine began on the day that UCL ended the UberEats programme. They received a food package containing bread, milk, fruit, and cereal but were left in the dark about the voucher.
He then had to spend days chasing up the different authorities: UCL Accommodation, Connect to Protect and Wellbeing. After his emails went unanswered, he resorted to phone calls – yet, upon introducing himself and his situation, he was hung up on.
“I did not feel supported at all. It should not be the students job during a pandemic when we are supposed to be isolating… to call up different services for them to be giving us a service that we were entitled to in the beginning.
“I was at a point when I didn’t have anything in my fridge and I had to order food with my own money that I couldn’t really afford… isolation is quite scary – what if you get COVID, what if you can’t get food.”
Not only were they upset by the poor treatment and communication received, but also at the fact that the programme was terminated. Word had spread about the vouchers and they had become an expectation, and those who were denied the same support felt neglected and left out.
“It’s completely ridiculous – if you’re going to give everyone else UberEats vouchers with ease who had isolated before us, why can’t we get the same support back.”
The UCL website still guarantees the vouchers, despite apparently no longer offering them. The university is under no obligation to provide such support measures; however, the frustration of students who expected to receive UberEats credit – not only due to their peers’ experience but also based on current UCL information – is understandable.
The Cheese Grater has reached out to UCL for a comment from the university on the total cost of the programme. Nonetheless, its cancellation after less than two months suggests a significant financial burden.
UCL should have devised an alternative that could accommodate the number of students who would have to isolate over the whole year. A more cohesive allocation of funds, as opposed to the fragmented system we have seen implemented, could have alleviated students’ stress when having to isolate, and could avoid further anxieties brought on by changing the system.
Update: As of 5th March 2021, The Cheese Grater received a comment from UCL regarding the voucher programme, claiming that vouchers are still being offered to students who are symptomatic or test positive. For traced contacts, they offer catering services. Yet, the amount of Uber Eats credit provided appears to have dropped. One student who isolated with symptoms recently told The Cheese Grater that she only received a £100 voucher, a substantial downgrade from what was offered before.
However, the slendering of support is unsurprising considering the scale of the programme in the beginning of the year. UCL provided 1450 vouchers to students in accommodation in Term One; at £280 a piece, the cost of the programme exceeded £400,000 in 2020 alone. Such a staggering sum raises questions about the opportunity cost of the scheme, and whether such funds could be channelled to alternative schemes for student welfare.
This appeared in CG Issue 76