‘I wore a gas mask on reception, but only managed to terrify two emergency engineers’

The shuttering of university campuses leaves security guards watching their screens for tumbleweeds, says George Bass

April 1, 2020
Source: Getty

It’s a series of events that us campus guards can normally set their watches to. The thinning out of foot traffic. Cafe shutters lowering. A hurried email sent from a lecturer’s Samsung asking us to unlock their office and check that they’ve definitely logged off. Just another Friday evening.

Only this was the middle of the week. Covid-19 was striking and no one was reassured by the signs in toilets claiming that “the government and NHS are well prepared to deal with this virus” – these will be a collector’s item soon, like those £5 notes selling for thousands of pounds on eBay because their serial numbers begin “AK47”.

In security, our first taste of the pandemic was when we received a job lot of disposable gloves and binbags. Then a box of hand sanitiser was delivered to our counter, so precious that it felt like I was accepting a dowry. We got one last email from on high – a request to stop issuing practice room keys to music students so we could limit cross-contamination via the mixing console – and then it was just us.

A few days later, the prime minister closed all the pubs. To paraphrase Shackleton, “our lives are now dependent on the play of grim elementary forces”. And we are left having to devise a new routine for ourselves as guards.

Christmas, bank holidays and snow flurries aside, the campus normally never sleeps. The last big disruption came on a Sunday, when a local power transformer exploded, blowing out electricity to half the campus. Unfortunately, it was the half containing the data suite, which meant that wi-fi went down. So many desperate people came at me shouting about 4G that it felt like I’d walked into a phone shop.

But now all campuses are physically closed, leaving a silence that we guards rarely get to hear. Usually, even during the quietest parts of the weekend, there’s always the rattle of keyboards and a meeting of the Dungeons & Dragons society. Sometimes there are less welcome visitors, too, such as local kids trying to peep into student accommodation. I used to see them as my nemeses. They head-butt vending machines, or force their way into the canteen, where they cover the floor in soap and start curling with upturned coffee tables.

But now I’d quite welcome that level of excitement. It’s so quiet that, last week, I wore a Soviet GP-5 gas mask while covering reception, but only managed to terrify two emergency engineers.

Of course, security aren’t the only people still on campus. Behind closed doors in halls are the international students who couldn’t get a flight home. If any of them are reading this, you’re welcome to chat to us. Just pick up the phone – we will even waive the standard engagement fee of a packet of biscuits for when you want an ear to bend. We’re here for you.

Someone who did phone us lately was a dad in Croatia, anxious that his son would jeopardise his degree if he went home before an official lockdown was announced. I read him the prepared statement that we’ve got taped to our monitor, then told him what I’d do if it was my kid getting panicked.

Another call came from two of our student nurses, who are on placement in a ward with two suspected coronavirus cases. What should they do? I read them the recommendation from the NHS Covid-19 page, then told them to watch the internet clip in which Alan Partridge demonstrates a contactless way of using a train toilet.

A week down the line, and the jokes are harder to find. Before all the shops put “sorry, we’re closed” signs in their windows, campus CCTV was its usual mosaic of activity. I was watching students adjust earbuds, zooming in on would-be intruders. But now our camera system is like a wall of postcards – nothing moving except the gulls and our own imaginations. Is that someone we saw sneeze and miss their elbow? Is that nipping in my chest the virus, last night’s jalfrezi or just DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness, since you ask) after yesterday’s push-ups?

I haven’t got the answers. But, being in a job where I’m often in bunker mode – and having practised social distancing since my first school disco – I’ve got a couple of suggestions for university staff struggling to adjust to it. The first is to treat self-isolation as Christmas. Phone your relatives, watch old films and eat all the chocolate at the back of your cupboard.

The second is to please stay away from campus. We know you work hard – we’re used to your turning up at all hours, weighed down with folders like middle-class hod carriers. But no one knows how long this thing will run for, so just enjoy the telecommuting: at least the parking’s easier. Don’t put us on the spot by saying access is essential, and you’ve got “specialist research software” in your office. You should probably know we assume that’s code for pornography.

George Bass is a security guard at a UK university.

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