Why I’m dreading this summer’s university conference season

Wedding receptions and other boisterous events on campus will be a dry run for marshalling unmasked students this autumn, reflects George Bass

July 23, 2021
Source: istock

Last year, we campus security guards got lucky.

True, we were on the front line of a pandemic while the rest of the world worked from home, tackling intruders and displaced members of the tabletop gaming society. Some of us were consoling distraught freshers isolating in halls of residence, while others were trying to stop opportunist gulls colonising empty office blocks and opportunist junkies using campus hedgerows as a needle stash. There was still a nationwide shortage of personal protective equipment when a positive case on my shift was reported.

But we took all such challenges in our stride, buoyed by five sweet words said to us in spring: “No conference guests this summer.”

Normally, security spend early summer preparing to receive the conference delegates and other paying guests that populate the campus through the limbo period until term begins again in October. We carry out extra sweeps of university-owned halls and houses, checking that the toilets flush, the showers run hot and that no student has left a box of Thai love beads in their wardrobe. I wish this last one was an exaggeration.

This year, normal service has resumed. But even if 19 July was Freedom Day and the health secretary says we need to learn to live with Covid-19 (which he demonstrated by boldly testing positive) all guards have been told to maintain social distancing. If any guest announces they have tested positive, we have to request that they refrain from leaving their room and sanitise any keys they’ve collected. We’ll also be wearing our masks at all times.

The decline in mask-wearing among campus users is something I’ve watched for a while. Officially, no one is allowed on the grounds without one, but with a dozen-plus entry points, guards can’t keep tabs on every visitor’s chin. 

In the first wave, we were told to keep all gates shut and admit no one. Then we could admit medical technicians providing they wore PPE. Then essential teaching and support staff. Then anyone, provided they were masked. Then anyone displaying official NHS mask exemption. Then anyone without masks or exemptions provided they gave a decent excuse.

The next few weeks could work as a dry run for issues we might face come the new semester, when I imagine we’ll be refereeing between jumpy lecturers and any unjabbed freshers they’re facing.

Nursing students are already arriving for their pre-term placements, and it’s interesting to talk to them about vaccine reluctance. Before summer, the university hosted a walk-in injection event open to the public: despite extra guards being needed to marshal the long queues, there were still students who were unwilling to get their shots.

Maybe this is due to their doom-scrolling conspiracy theories, but every time I see a fresher who’s gone to bed on a dozen Baileys-and-lime-juice Cement Mixer shots – and then woken up to energy drinks for breakfast – I get flashbacks to Trainspotting, and the chain-smoking, whiskey-glugging Begbie remarking to his junkie mates: “No way would I poison my body with that shite.”

As troubling as the image of educated youngsters refusing vaccines is, I’m more freaked out about the wedding reception backlog that the university will no doubt try to accommodate this conference season. Larger bookings bring in much-needed funds, and one of our buildings for hire features rolling lawns, maze gardens and trees whose blossom goes very well with confetti.

But the last wedding I was on shift for featured a call from a member of the catering staff saying that it had turned fisty. The best man’s speech had included a roll call of the bride’s exes, which was taken the wrong way. Particularly by the bride’s mum, who took a swing at him. When the groom jumped up to defend his mate, uncles on both sides joined in, and the whole room turned into a scene from a western. Although the DJ managed to calm everyone down with Snow Patrol, the memory doesn’t fill me with confidence that reception guests will maintain social distancing when the family tensions inevitably erupt again.

Wedding receptions aren’t the only campus events that may not incorporate the “personal responsibility” that the government has asked of us. Take corporate functions, another a key part of the university conference season.

I’ll never forget the group of bankers who hired our criminology block for their Hawaiian nibbles night. I’m not saying they were reckless or the type to sneer at precautions, but anyone who brings a surf simulator to an after-dinner dance (and then demands we summon an emergency electrician to rig power to it) might not be overly safety-conscious.

Throw in bonus challenges like dealing with Ketwoman – our nickname for a local resident who’s partial to Class B drugs and has worked out that we respond faster than the emergency services – and you can see why guards are looking forward to the return of the students.

By then, maybe we’ll have a clearer set of government guidelines to stick to. There are lecturers I talk to who want a fourth lockdown. Staff with young kids want pre-Covid normality back. Medical techs would like visors to be the new baseball caps. And a few students hope we’re going to copy Washington state, where anyone who’s double-jabbed can do anything, and anyone who isn’t can too, provided they wear a mask.

Hopefully there’s a sweet spot, on which all sides can converge without trolling each other. Until then, security will try to provide an efficient concierge service for the rest of the summer. And we’ll have Snow Patrol on standby, just in case.

George Bass is a security guard at a UK university.

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Reader's comments (2)

Struggling to agree with this article, particularly the wedding story as that is not a COVID issue. Although I realise that security staff everywhere have had a difficult time, restrictions have now been lifted. I enjoyed my first trip to the supermarket and a garden centre this week without a mask. I am also hoping to get in some face-to-face teaching in the autumn, having had both my jabs some time ago. If we cannot begin a return to normality then the efforts of the scientists who developed the vaccine will have been for nothing.
Very well-written piece of writing.

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