UK’s old university towns hit by Covid-19 ‘double whammy’

Usually, St Andrews is thronged with students and its Old Course links fully booked by international golfing tourists.

Around 9,000 students make up one-third of the population, and Scotland’s oldest university, which generated £268.6m for the local economy in 2018, is the town’s major employer, supporting 4,260 jobs.

Will there be a second wave of coronavirus?

Epidemics of infectious diseases behave in different ways but the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed more than 50 million people is regarded as a key example of a pandemic that occurred in multiple waves, with the latter more severe than the first. It has been replicated – albeit more mildly – in subsequent flu pandemics.

How and why multiple-wave outbreaks occur, and how subsequent waves of infection can be prevented, has become a staple of epidemiological modelling studies and pandemic preparation, which have looked at everything from social behaviour and health policy to vaccination and the buildup of community immunity, also known as herd immunity.

This is being watched very carefully. Without a vaccine, and with no widespread immunity to the new disease, one alarm is being sounded by the experience of Singapore, which has seen a sudden resurgence in infections despite being lauded for its early handling of the outbreak.

Although Singapore instituted a strong contact tracing system for its general population, the disease re-emerged in cramped dormitory accommodation used by thousands of foreign workers with inadequate hygiene facilities and shared canteens.

Singapore’s experience, although very specific, has demonstrated the ability of the disease to come back strongly in places where people are in close proximity and its ability to exploit any weakness in public health regimes set up to counter it.

Conventional wisdom among scientists suggests second waves of resistant infections occur after the capacity for treatment and isolation becomes exhausted. In this case the concern is that the social and political consensus supporting lockdowns is being overtaken by public frustration and the urgent need to reopen economies.

The threat declines when susceptibility of the population to the disease falls below a certain threshold or when widespread vaccination becomes available.

In general terms the ratio of susceptible and immune individuals in a population at the end of one wave determines the potential magnitude of a subsequent wave. The worry right now is that with a vaccine still months away, and the real rate of infection only being guessed at, populations worldwide remain highly vulnerable to both resurgence and subsequent waves.

Peter Beaumont

With the scenic coastline of north-east Fife, and the Royal and Ancient a golfing destination par excellence, tourism is the second major employer.

“But we are a long way from knowing how students will be able to come, and how many. It’s very difficult to see how international students will be able to return in any numbers at all if normal term times are able to start again,” said Alan Mitchell, chief executive of the Fife chamber of commerce. “Equally, it’s hard to see international golf tourism happening any time soon.”

Like many picturesque universities towns and cities, St Andrews is suffering heavily due to Covid-19. Reliant on higher education and tourism, they face a difficult challenge with no clear idea when students or travellers will return. Meanwhile they are lobbying for supportive government financial measures to take account of their special circumstances.

Students and tourists are vital to the economies of Oxford (about 24,000 students) and Cambridge (about 22,000).

Tourism generates £2.3bn and supports 40,000 jobs in Oxfordshire. “Oxford, the city of dreaming spires is an iconic global brand,” said Hayley Beer-Gamage, CEO of Experience Oxfordshire.

Oxford itself attracts 8 million visitors annually, worth £900m to the city, and though only 10% are international, they account for 40% of expenditure. An Experience Oxfordshire survey showed lockdown accounting for £137m a month in lost tourism in the county, set to reach more than £1bn this year.

The student population supported many businesses during term, and brought increased visitor numbers to Oxford and the nearby Cotswolds, said Beer-Gamage. “Their families come over and stay for long periods, particularly from the Indian market, the UAE and America.

“When the students go home in the summer months, the gap is plugged by tourists. But now we’ve got the double-whammy.”

The strategy now is to nurture the domestic market, and maximise the overnight stay, when measures allow. But Beer-Gamage hopes the Covid-19 crisis will force the government to recognise the value of the visitor economy, “a thriving world-class national economy that people aspire to”, and its major role as part of the pandemic recovery.

“Any town or city with either one very large university, or more than one, will be particularly badly affected,” said Nick Hillman, director of thinktank Hepi (Higher Education Policy Institute). “So, yes. It’s bad.”

While the Oxfords and Cambridges had other things going on, said Hillman, “there are other places where students may be even more important”. The Sheffield Central parliamentary constituency has the largest number of students in the UK at around 60,000. “Places struggling economically before the crisis with large student numbers, for example, are Sunderland, Huddersfield or Bolton,” said Hillman.

“Students spend money on accommodation, in cafes and restaurants, in bicycle shops and bookshops. A lot of these towns and cities have whole parts of their economy wholly aimed at students. So, it’s devastating for them.”

Bath’s two universities host 21,000 students, one quarter of the city’s population. Historic buildings and the Roman baths attract 6 million visitors annually, with large numbers from continental Europe, China and elsewhere in Asia.



Lockdown has seen a direct loss of £34m in income from tourism and related services to Bath & North East Somerset council. “But, in terms of what comes into the local economy you are looking at around £470m so far,” said the council leader, Dine Romero. With the student loss, too, “it is a double whammy”.

“It’s the unpredictability, that’s the problem. With other businesses, you could say the next quarter there will be X, and the quarter after there will be X-plus. And, we just don’t know, because so much is going to be based on that global confidence,” she added.

“We need to make sure those in a position to help us do understand that. We do have a unique set of circumstances, so this has hit us especially badly.”

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