Can our campus cough squad force good sense on maskless students?

Unclear guidelines, screen-tanned conspiracy theorists and government party animals: none of them is helping campus security, says George Bass

December 22, 2021
Boris Johnson putting on mask
Source: Getty (edited)

The senior facilities administrator faced me across the security counter, cradling boxes of disposable face coverings.

“These are for you,” he said. “You’ve seen the staff notice about the new restrictions beginning tomorrow? We’ve been advising students to bring their own masks, but at a pinch they can get one from you. We’re awaiting confirmation on how that will work.”

I scrolled through the security email inbox and read the new guidance on Covid. It seemed unclear. Face coverings were once again mandatory across the campus – except for people who were exempt. The exempted would be required to display an exemption lanyard – unless they didn’t feel comfortable doing so.

I asked the senior facilities administrator how a security guard like me should enforce a rule like that, which to all intents and purposes was still voluntary.

“We’re awaiting confirmation,” he said.

This was two weeks ago. I expect confirmation will soon be forthcoming given the increasing anxiety about the Omicron variant. Still, I can already foresee battles when trying to get people on campus to embrace mask-wearing again.

Guards have not stopped wearing our masks since the first wave. And, to be fair, lecturers have been pretty consistent in signing out transparent visors when teaching – as one explained to me, cloth masks are no use if there are any students who need to lip-read. If only academics could control their lateral flow test habits. Kits have been flying out of our window quicker than Harry Potter Lego from Santa’s workshop, and our ordering system can barely keep up.

Another sign of anxiety about Omicron is students being sent to security by their lecturers to collect a mask before a lesson starts. Those lecturers are clearly made of sterner stuff than our librarians. On the morning the new rules kicked in, one guard got a phone call from a member of staff saying there were unmasked students in the silent study area, and that library administrators “were on too low a pay grade to face the anxiety of asking people to comply”. This to a bloke whose wage packet just about covers the weekly shop.

What can security do in such cases anyway? It would be easy for anyone in a large group to tell us they’re untouchable because they’re hosting a Conservative Students’ Association Christmas business meeting.

To be fair, though, most students are abiding by the new regulations. A recent headcount in the library revealed that 80 per cent were complying with social distancing measures and wearing mouth coverings. This is just as well: during the last round of restrictions, we had Covid marshals to help us make sure everyone was behaving. This time, it’s just us.

That 80 per cent figure is all the more remarkable given that until recently masks had become a scarce sight on campus, despite still being recommended. So scarce, in fact, that security were using them as an early warning system that something was afoot.

We adopted this mindset a few weeks ago, after being called to a disturbance in a first-floor seminar room. The tutor had reported a young bloke who had burst in, run across to the windows, and was now staring breathlessly through the blinds overlooking the main campus footpath. We calmed him down and checked his student ID. Although he wasn’t saying much, we later found out that there were three blokes prowling the campus looking for him. They were all in identical dark hoodies and wearing masks – not to stop the spread of the virus, but to keep their faces off CCTV. Whatever they wanted, it was serious enough to make our distressed student fork out for a cab to the nearest major railway station.

Another class of oddball we have to deal with are the campus conspiracy theorists, who’ve been awake for too long and are getting a tan off their monitors. I’ve lost count of how many contractors have tried to tell me the reason Omicron is so called is because the World Health Organisation skipped xi in the Greek alphabet to avoid upsetting the East Asian illuminati. We politely send such keyboard warriors packing; the last thing we want is to embolden them to brick the Happy Dragon takeaway.

Gen Z can be pretty Covid-clueless, too. One male resident of our halls of residence is on the recently revived self-isolation spreadsheet, obliging us to deliver food parcels to him. He also asks for his Amazon orders to be brought to his door. Yet he is regularly seen heading into town after dark and even brawling with people in club queues.

Whenever we’re told about his antics, we report them. And whenever we catch him in the act, we have a socially distanced word. But what we’d really welcome is the return of the cough squad: our nickname for the police car that used to patrol the city during previous waves to break up large groups and lock-ins. It would be a great deterrent now – although perhaps not in Westminster.

At the other end of the germophobic scale, one student activated her emergency alert app at the start of the month to tell us she was self-isolating – until New Year’s Day. Perhaps, to be fair, she just really hates turkey – but if she does, she’s going to be distinctly impressed by her Christmas Day food delivery.

George Bass is a security guard at a UK university.


Print headline: Cough squad, we need cover!

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