The most excitement we campus security guards have had since the UK’s third national lockdown was announced on 4 January was watching an opportunist thief at work on CCTV.
The thief – who was savvy enough to wear a backpack and could have easily passed for one of our students – noticed a computer technician coming out of a door carrying an empty laptop box. He set off in the opposite direction and made off with the box’s contents.
It took nearly a whole Saturday to pinpoint his route and find facial shots. It’s the longest I’ve spent in front of one screen since the release of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. But the results were satisfying: our footage helped the police find him and he’s now on remand. If only he’d heeded the prime minister’s stern new year instruction: “Stay at home.”
I was getting ready for an early shift during Boris Johnson’s address and was too wiped to listen carefully. So it wasn’t immediately clear to me whether we’d still need to open up the next morning. But it turned out that anyone studying health, education, social work or science was spared house arrest this time, so guards, maintenance, cleaning and catering staff would also be required on campus, making coffee and spraying corridors.
With the return of more practical or practice-based subjects on 8 March, and with the expectation of another lifting of restrictions in the summer term, what do campus users need to be aware of – and what are security on the lookout for?
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As we read about the third wave sweeping across Europe, our immediate priority is to ensure that new international students stick to their initial isolation periods on arrival. Guards know this can be a mission, especially when arrivals are isolating in shared houses and don’t arrive with two weeks’ worth of food, fresh underwear and toothpaste.
My advice to anyone in that boat is not to panic. It’s easy to feel anxious when you’re alone at 3am, but to us that’s lunchtime halfway through a night shift. If other university control rooms are like ours, there’ll be a number you can call 24/7 that’s answered by someone with keys to the campus freezer. You’ll never go hungry – or more than an hour without toilet roll.
Some of the returning academics seem little better prepared. Watching them arrive is like watching Tom Hanks finding dry land in Cast Away. They can’t believe this place still exists. If this is you, security make the humble request that you please, please wear a mask. Most staff don’t need reminding, but with guards being asked to patrol the library and ensure students are wearing theirs (or at least displaying an exemption lanyard), it blows a hole in our argument if we’re told: “But that bloke over there in the specs and neck beard isn’t wearing one either.”
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Even with all university staff being designated as key workers, we’re aware that there’ll be fewer fellow employees on the campus than usual. This is a concern for us, especially if bubble breaches ramp up as more students return. Having the support of faculty heads, in particular, can be a godsend when trying to enforce social distancing.
Luckily, we still get our evening phone call from the local police, who provide us with the mobile number of whichever squad car’s on duty that night. Apart from the computer theft, we haven’t had to phone them much recently, but it might be useful for the most militant mask refuseniks to know they are there.
Mask patrols aren’t the only change campus users may notice. After locking up our painting and sculpture building last March, security visits there were periodic. We’d check the exits, kick junk mail out of the porch, and see if the dead rat down in the cellar had shrunk. But around Christmas we realised something was afoot when we were asked to admit a carpenter who had been commissioned to fit a tea point. A couple of days later, 30 soldiers arrived. The block was being converted into a public test centre. At least it made the campus feel less lonely and redundant.
I won’t miss working over lockdown. It had its advantages, of course – fewer parties to close down, CCTV looking less like Where’s Wally? – but they were outweighed by a cloud of uncertainty that’s affected every part of the campus and often washed up, Hanks style, on security’s shore. There were the maintenance contractors unsure whether their latest job was essential (and therefore legal). There were the prospective undergrads arriving unannounced at weekends and trying to debate the “no visitors” policy. And there were the lecturers complaining that their reduced hours meant they would probably only earn £32,000 this year. Remaining deadpan about such deprivation was one of our toughest gigs.
But the toughest was dealing first-hand with increased incidents of student self-harm. When this happens, it’s not just the student who suffers: their flatmates blame themselves for missing the signs and not offering enough support. We’ve had to do a lot of reassurance work out of hours.
As the country opens up again, I’m hopeful that freshers’ mental health will take less of a hammering. In the meantime, students, keep your masks on – and remember that there’s no shame in asking whether the person two metres to your right is OK.