International students forced into ‘travel loophole’
International students, required to undertake hotel quarantine as part of Scottish measures to prevent new Covid-19 variants, are claiming prohibitive costs mean they are using a travel loophole to return via England.
Since 15 February all international travellers arriving into Scotland must enter supervised quarantine in a registered hotel at their own cost. However in other parts of the UK supervised quarantine is only required for those arriving from specified “at risk” countries.
The Scottish Government has called on the UK Government to impose stricter restrictions. However figures suggest hundreds of travellers are meanwhile opting to avoid Scottish quarantine by arriving via England.
International students claim costs of £1,750 for the mandatory isolation are unaffordable, and risk leaving them unable to get back to their homes and studies in Scotland.
Universities Scotland is calling for students to be allowed to self-isolate in their accommodation or be exempted from fees. But the Scottish Government insists managed quarantine is essential.
On 9 February it announced it will be introducing a ‘managed isolation fund‘ for those who cannot afford hotel fees but no students who spoke to the Ferret had been able to access funding assistance.
The Ferret spoke to four stranded EU students who claim a lack of finances mean they have no choice but to make use of the so-called English loophole to return to their Edinburgh homes.
They include Veronica Kontopoulou, a fourth year journalism student at Edinburgh Napier University, who left the UK for Finland on 19 December to spend Christmas with her family and partner.
She expected to return on 10 January. But when she heard about the new lock-down measures, she decided to push her flight back to 27 February, thinking “why rush into a lock down when I can go back a few weeks later when things calm down”.
Now she claims her long anticipated Christmas break has morphed into “an expensive nightmare”, leaving her stranded in Finland.
“It is incredibly stressful because I had been looking forward to getting back to my home in Edinburgh, to be able to focus on school again instead of completely relying on other people,” said Kontopoulou, who feels like she has overstayed her welcome at her partner’s home.
“I know that having me stay is interrupting [their] daily schedule and I am not able to focus on my work either. [But] I don’t have a place in Finland. I need to get back home [to Edinburgh].”
The insecurity of not knowing whether she can get back affected her mental health. “It made my anxiety attacks [which she suffered from previously] come back”,” she said.
“I feel like there is the old pressure to excel at university, pay rent and look for internships but the conditions have changed. It is incredibly draining.”
Kontopoulou contacted her elected representatives asking about advice for students and claims “their responses were beyond unhelpful”.
In one email, seen by The Ferret, Ruth Davidson MSP merely restates the rules in Scotland, notes that these are different in England and says she and Conservative colleagues regret the difference and will be monitoring the situation.
The Finnish student has so far lost £500, paid out for flights she was unable to take, and is also paying monthly rent of £600 for her empty room in Edinburgh.
Besides finances, she worries about the impact her long absence will have on her pre-settled status, as an EU citizen. Under the post-Brexit rules she must be resident in the UK for five years – with gaps of no longer than six months at a time – to qualify for settled status.
“If I am gone for longer than six months, I could lose my status which means I will no longer be covered by the NHS and searching for jobs will be far more difficult, “she said.
“All of the sudden, being able to live and study in the UK seems like a massively draining ordeal and I find myself doubting if I can do this.”
Kontopoulou is not alone. Sam Morgan, a 21-year-old engineering student from Edinburgh University, went to spend Christmas with his 81-year-old grandfather in Valencia, Spain.
He had only planned to stay two weeks, so he could make it back to Edinburgh for the new term. But nine weeks later, he is still living with his grandfather and has no idea when and how he will get back. “I never imagined I’d still be here at this point,” he told The Ferret.
Now, Morgan’s only way of affording to return to Edinburgh is by going via London and staying on his brother’s sofa for 10 days.
Using the London loophole would cost him an extra £300 for tests and train tickets in addition to the money he’s already lost on non-refundable flight tickets and Covid-19 tests. But it is significantly less than the managed quarantine, which he says is unaffordable.
Besides travel costs he is also paying £575 monthly for his room in Edinburgh, which he has been unable to live in.
“I was just hoping to see my grandad for a two-week Christmas holiday, not expecting this would turn into a costly two-month nightmare” he said.
As an international student he also has to pay £23,000 in university fees, despite the move to remote teaching.
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