Young women on phone in Edinburgh

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. 

International students forced into 'travel loophole' 3
Veronica Kontopoulou has not been able to return home to Edinburgh from Finland.

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 daily schedule and I am not able to focus on my work either. I don’t have a place in Finland. I need to get back home .”

The insecurity of not knowing whether she can get back affected her mental health. “It made my anxiety attacks come back”,” 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.

Veronica Kontopoulou

“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.

International students forced into 'travel loophole' 4
Sam Morgan is still in Spain with his grandfather.

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.

We are continually reviewing and improving this based on feedback. What we teach our students, the learning outcomes with which they will graduate, and fee arrangements, remain unaltered.

Edinburgh University

The University of Edinburgh told The Ferret there were 16,375 international enrolments out of a total of 44,510 in 2020 with 5,380 of those being from the EU.

A spokesman said that there was no justification for lowering international fees.

“We have invested in new mechanisms, new media and new software to support the delivery of online teaching,” he added.

“We are continually reviewing and improving this based on feedback. What we teach our students, the learning outcomes with which they will graduate, and fee arrangements, remain unaltered.”

They said both academic and support staff worked throughout the summer “to ensure our students continued to receive the education that they expect from the University of Edinburgh”.

Second year environmental studies student Adéla Pafková, 21, also studying at Edinburgh University said she felt let down that she received no travel advice from university officials.

“We got emails about all sorts, but no mention of the quarantine hotel costs or what international students should do if they can’t return,” she said.

International students forced into 'travel loophole' 5
Adele Pafková travelled back to Prague shortly before Christmas and her flights back to Scotland were cancelled.

Pafková travelled to Prague shortly before Christmas to spend time with her family. She planned to return on the 15 January, but her flight was cancelled and with no option of paying the £1,750 quarantine hotel fee, she is now arranging her return via England.

“I calculated that the hotel costs more than I pay for four months of rent and that is unacceptable for me,” said Pafkov, who despite working all summer last year, earned less than the £1,750 she needs to return.  

“Knowing that rules and fees can change on a day-to-day basis makes me so anxious. The unpredictability of travel regulations makes it close to impossible to plan, and the financial costs are unbearable if you don’t have an income,” she added. 

The pandemic has also taken a financial toll on 21-year-old bio-medicine student Marta Santos, also studying at the University of Edinburgh.

Before Covid-19 I was working two-part time jobs, but then I got laid off and now I feel like a burden on my parents

Marta Santos

She had planned to come back from her winter break in mid-January, but like the others, her flight never took off. Santos was forced to stay in Spain longer than anticipated and became dependent on her parents’ income.

“Before Covid-19 I was working two-part time jobs, but then I got laid off and now I feel like a burden on my parents,” she said.

“But no one will hire me if I am not physically in Edinburgh and there is no way I can pay for the hotel,” she explained. 

Santos also feels her only option is to fly to London and quarantine at a friends house before getting back to Scotland.

Even still, this journey will cost her an additional £400 – the equivalent of one month’s rent, which is still less than hotel fees. “I have lost all the money I have and there is no way of earning more,” she said.

Student fee exemptions

A Universities Scotland spokesperson told the Ferret that the Scottish Government should enable students to self-isolate in their homes, or else exempt them from the quarantine fees.

“We believe students should be able to quarantine in university accommodation,” they said. “Institutions would meet the same high safety standards required of the wider managed quarantine programme but be able to offer wider support to their students as a distinct and potentially more vulnerable demographic.

“We also believe there is a strong case to include international students amongst the categories exempt from paying the quarantine fee.”

Fees for students who cannot access their university provided-accommodation have been lifted. But those who live under the roofs of private landlords have to find other solutions.

Universities Scotland said it also recognises that not being able to return may affect students’ settled status and called for the Scottish Government to address the issue.

“International students need clarity from the Scottish Government about what the quarantine process will mean for them,” the spokesperson added.

“Public health remains paramount but the major barriers to inward travel to Scotland create a number of issues in regard to students’ visa and settled status as well as financial and practical issues.”

The Scottish Government said that while it understands the hardship faced by students, the hotel quarantine is essential to managing the pandemic and that individual institutions should ensure students have the support they need.

“We know the pandemic has been as hard on students and that international students will be worried about the returning to their studies this academic year,” said a spokesperson.

“However, the clinical advice is clear that, to give us the best chance of getting back to normality, a comprehensive system of managed quarantine is essential to minimise the impact of new Covid-19 variants.

“Any student concerned they do not have the correct equipment or books should speak to their institution to discuss the support available to them.”

This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National

Image thanks to iStock/sjenner13

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