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

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.

Emma Campbell: ‘It was always going to happen’
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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.

Fresher Theo Edge says he is terrified about spreading the virus to older people
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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.”

Mark and Rhian Philips, who’s business is ‘student-led’
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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.”

During the summer, the town was initially concerned about the arrival of tourists but that has now moved to the impact of returning students
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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.”

Not everyone believes the 10pm curfew is the right way to stop the spread of the virus among the younger population
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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, highlighting that data suggested the doubling time for new infections could have been as short as seven days nationally.

They offered a number of interventions to reverse this exponential rise in cases, which included a circuit breaker and for all university and college teaching to be online unless face-to-face teaching is absolutely essential.

“The more rapidly interventions are put in place and the more stringent they are the faster the reduction in incidence and prevalence and the greater the reduction in Covid-related deaths (high confidence),” they said.

They also admitted the existing evidence base for the effectiveness and harms of individual interventions is “generally weak”.

Government scientists have long been worried about the impact of returning students
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Councillor Mark Strong, who represents Aberystwyth North, says the university is “stuck in a market”.

Cllr Strong said: “I think on balance they made the right call in bringing them [students] back, given the information they had at the time.

“The fact is the outbreak could just as much have happened with the tourists descending on the town. The fact it didn’t is down to luck alone, along with the time of year they visited.

“The more people have social contact, the more the likelihood the virus will spread. Unfortunately the only way to stop or slow it is bring social contact down. I’d say that most students I’ve seen have and are being very conscientious.”

For those students who live abroad, the prospect of a second national lockdown or tighter local restrictions are very real and very worrying.

‘Coming from America, I was definitely aware that I had to be more careful’
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Gracie Eland, an American studying creative writing and French, said she was acutely aware of her responsibilities to follow the rules having travelled from a country still in the grip of a coronavirus pandemic.

“It was nice just to get here and to adjust after being away for so long,” she said, describing life in quarantine when she arrived last month. “It was definitely hard not to be able to leave and to have to stay in the flat and quarantine. I wasn’t really able to go anywhere or do anything but I was really lucky actually because my flat mates agreed to stay and hang out. We took a lot of precautions while I was there so they would be safe around me but I was really fortunate to have them around.

“The goal is to travel home at Christmas but people here have been saying it’s not really possible so I think you just have to take it as it comes. If it’s not possible then I’ll just be here and make the best of it.

“Coming from America, I was definitely aware that I had to be more careful, especially the first two weeks [in quarantine] but in general as well.”

Emlyn Hopcyn drives home to Brynamman every week
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But her concerns aren’t restricted to foreign students. Emlyn Hopcyn, a history Masters student, studies at the university and travels home to Brynamman on the south-western edge of the Brecon Beacons every week.

He drives to Aberystwyth every Tuesday for lectures and stays in an Air BnB on Tuesday and Wednesday night before driving back home to Brynamman on Thursday.

“There’s a lot of stress now if lockdown happens,” he says. “Either side I would be trapped so I don’t really know what I’m meant to be doing.

“I think I’m allowed to go for education but at the same time, surely if my area is in a dangerous situation or high risk level then surely I shouldn’t be allowed to leave to come to Aberystwyth to stay in an Air BnB rather than living here?

“I can understand staying within the area but I have to leave my area to come here.

“I think [local lockdown] is a good way to stop the spread. I think there should be more leniency from the university maybe or maybe it should all be online, for me, because then I wouldn’t have to leave the house. I think you could just emulate the same thing just on Zoom or Microsoft Teams. I think you can get the same results.”

Anita Strzelecka, a third-year law student from Poland, would take a gap year if she was starting out as a Fresher this year
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Not all students are relishing the reliance on remote learning however. Anita Strzelecka, a third-year law student from Poland, says she would probably take a gap year if she was arriving as a fresher.

The 22-year-old came to Aberystwyth in September and said: “I would say to take a gap year if it was me starting out as a first year.” Infection rates in Poland are lower, she says, and plans to travel home fro Christmas will depend on quarantine rules.

“We have a much lower rate in Poland and the night life is still alive,” she adds. “Bars are open and we have parties inside.

“I really don’t want to suffer quarantine in Poland and the UK when I come back, so I’ll wait and see.”

Mark and Rhian Philips think the students ‘make the town’
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Back on Pier Street, Rhian and Mark are trying to make sure their business can survive. Two years ago, they bought the premises next door to Why Not Bar and Lounge and transformed it into Cwtsh, a cocktail bar and a separate fine dining restaurant upstairs, called SY23.

The bar and restaurant came with the rights to operate on the outside area in front overlooking the square and clock tower on Darkgate Street. Straightaway, they set about gaining permission to build a decking area outside for additional seating, unaware that it would be that decision that would save them in 2020.

The Friday before lockdown was announced, Mark had finally been given the green light to press ahead with his outdoor seating. The couple spent most of early lockdown “rushing through” the design and build of what is now a very sophisticated covered area complete with glass side panelling designed specifically to maximise air flow and fire pit tables to keep customers warm.

“When Covid hit and everything stopped on March 20, we furloughed 38-40 members of staff,” recalls Rhian. “It’s been difficult.

“Because of Covid, we have the outside area which has really taken off because people feel comfortable. We’ve seen a huge increase in our outside customers now.”

The restaurant, with renowned chef Nathan Davies in the kitchen, used to seat 26 but can now only serve 12 due to social distancing measures. They’ve seen cancellations from people travelling from Cardiff and Cowbridge as local lockdows have been implemented.

The nightclub, which has a capacity for 400 revellers, can now only take 80.

The couple know each strand of their business targets a very different customer base and both admit that it is largely “student-led”. The development of SY23 and Cwtsh was to try and tap into a wider summer market when fewer students are around.

“The regulations have crucified out business next door and curtailed this one,” says Rhian, waving at the idyllic scene around her as people enjoy a drink at Cwtsh in the late Autumn sunshine.

“We put an awful lot of strain on Why Not to do Cwtsh, but now that’s reversed.” The restaurant and cocktail bar must work hard to keep it all going.

“We are guessing and every time you guess it costs us,” added Mark.

Neither take the virus lightly, with Mark having lost his father, step mother and another close family member to coronavirus. “It gets you from all angles,” he says with an ironic smile. “It takes your family, your loved ones, your business and it stops you seeing your friends and doing what you normally do.”

Even so, neither want to see students prevented from arriving in Aberystwyth. Rhian added: “We want them to be here because they make the town.

“There should have been a two-week quarantine when they first arrived. Make them all self-isolate and have only online lectures for two weeks. Then keep them here. When they’re here, then they’re ours and it’s our responsibility to keep them safe.”

Ceredigion Council said it had worked hard to reduce transmission as much as possible
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The council said it had set up an incident management team specifically to manage the cluster of cases in the university. A spokesman for the council said: “Control measures have been put in place at the university to reduce the risk of further transmission and additional testing capacity has been put in place.

“All possible control measures continue to be considered by the incident management team to ensure the safety of our student population and the wider population of Ceredigion. The council’s priority is to ensure the safety of its residents and to keep the level of coronavirus in the county as low as possible and measures have been taken to reduce transmission as much as possible.”

A spokesperson for Aberystwyth University said its priority was the health and wellbeing of students, staff and the wider community.

A spokesman said: “We’re working very closely with the Ceredigion Contact Tracing team, and we are supporting all those affected by this awful virus. Covid-19 is circulating in our community, and it is only by working together for the common good that will we halt its damaging effects.

“The University is actively working alongside our partners in Hywel Dda University Health Board, Public Health Wales, Ceredigion County Council and others through the incident management team to implement any steps identified to reduce the risk of further transmission locally. This ongoing collaboration has ensured additional testing capacity as we deal with the cluster within the student community. We will continue to monitor the situation and act accordingly in close collaboration with local, regional and national agencies.”

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