Boris Johnson and student support during COVID-19: rhetoric vs action

Alice Thomson, writing for The Times, called students “stoic” and part of a “lost generation”. This was in response to how COVID-19’s effect on students was being ignored by the government. If Thomson’s article was summed up in one sentence it would be this: university students are being let down. This was written in October 2020. 4 months and 1.5 lockdowns later, Boris Johnson has said he and the Conservatives “will do whatever we can to support [students]”. But actions speak louder than words and students have to wonder if this is true.  

The above statement was in response to a question from Cat Smith, MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood, during PMQs on February 24th. As such I am inclined to view Boris’ words as nothing more than hot air, an answer thrown out so that he didn’t appear to be completely ignoring students. But one small speech does not rectify all the times we have been forgotten.  

Throughout this pandemic, students have felt like the group that got left behind. While most other sectors have received thorough speeches and plans for recovery during the Coronavirus press briefings, we got a letter. Not to mention that Michelle Donelan MP, the Minister of State for Universities, hasn’t been seen behind the podium at Number 10 since November. Having been encouraged to go home for Christmas, students weren’t brought up when the third lockdown was announced. I arrived in halls the very same day, and, like many others, I had to sift through official government documents to find out if I would have to go home again. No news source could tell me this as the government had seemingly forgotten to make a plan for us.  

A month and a half later, Johnson gave a press briefing about his “roadmap” out of lockdown. Only hours before, he had told Cat Smith that he would do whatever he could to support students. Though universities were mentioned, those not on practical courses were merely told that their situation would be reviewed after Easter. In a plan that takes the time to set out when up to 10,000 people can all go to a sporting event, it seems that setting a provisional date for 100 people to sit in a lecture hall is out of the question. Surely support, if Johnson truly wishes to provide this, starts with getting as much thought put into our futures as sports fans do. 

Finally, in the same answer to Cat Smith’s question, Johnson called students “heroic”, which is a drastic change of tune. Even back in October, Alice Thomson noted in her article that students were becoming scapegoats for rising COVID-19 cases; teenage house parties and perceived student inability to obey the rules were pinpointed as the reason that cases were rising, to the point where staff at the University of Manchester thought that it was acceptable to physically fence students into their accommodation. Calling us heroic will not make us forget or forgive how we have been blamed and ignored over the course of the pandemic.  Actions speak louder than words, Boris, and your actions speak plenty.  

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