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Exclusive: University U-turn on £75 Covid-19 grocery boxes

Quarantined Hillheaders initially offered food deliveries at "crazy" prices

By: Jake Roslin

Food box and list of contents. Photograph: Rachel McAuley

Last week Aberdeen University bosses dramatically reversed a plan to charge commercial rates for essential food and drink delivered to self-isolating students.

72 undergraduates have been in a Covid-19 lockdown at Wavell House since Fresher's Week, with a number of further Hillhead students also now confined to their flats for a fortnight.

When compulsory quarantine began at the self-catering block, the university's Campus Services offered to deliver marooned residents prepared meals and grocery boxes. In an email sent to all Wavell residents on 23 September, a "three-course meal with a bottle of water" is £9, breakfasts are £5 and lunches £7. Boxes of groceries (pictured) were priced at an eye-watering £42 for three days' food or £75 for a week's supplies.

Wavell resident Kuba Pitula, told the Gaudie: "I thought the cost of that was crazy, normally I would arrange food for a week for myself for no more than £20."

Rachel McAuley, who is self-isolating in New Carnegie, commented: "I think it's awful that the uni was considering charging students £75 for the box as the average shop for us would be about £25. Especially as you don't get to choose what is in the box."

University email to students in Wavell - Photograph: Gaudie screengrab

Pitula, a computer science student said he decided to order food from Asda instead. “I didn't even consider taking the food from the uni after seeing the price.”

Another resident in Wavell, who asked to remain anonymous because they feared “a backlash” from the University, told us "It was ridiculous and extortionate. No-one has £75 lying around. The lockdown was abrupt. People had scheduled shopping trips for the next day. I understand the urgency... however, we should have had more notice, that way people wouldn't have gone hungry." Like Pitula, they ordered groceries from Asda instead.

However, on 27 September Campus Services announced food boxes would henceforth be provided to self-isolators free of charge upon request, although preparation and delivery could take up to 24 hours.

A university spokesperson advised The Gaudie that the sudden change in policy was due to quarantined students "struggling to secure online grocery delivery slots" and to ensure "all those in isolation had sufficient supplies." However, the institution's original attitude and in particular the high prices set, have caused something of a storm on various social media over the last few days.

"It’s frankly abhorrent that the university needed to get backlash" - Student Tenant's Union

"It’s frankly abhorrent that the university needed to get backlash," Jack Boag, President of the Aberdeen Student Tenant's Union (ASTU) told us. "Providing them for free is what they should have always done".

Concerns were also expressed to The Gaudie that students with medical conditions such as diabetes or gluten intolerance were not catered for by the one-size-fits-all boxes, which contain a somewhat eclectic selection of pasta meals, soups and a very large number of sweet snacks. It was also reported that vegan boxes were identical to the vegetarian ones.

The original 23 September email, which has been seen by The Gaudie, suggested grounded students were free to have their food and drink delivered by supermarkets, friends or take-away services, before listing the various options which could be provided by Hillhead's central catering facility, The Works. The university spokesperson stressed to us residents were under no obligation to purchase. The costs of the food would have been added to the student's account with the university.

Wavell House has been in lockdown since 22 September after a confirmed outbreak of Covid-19 there. A total of 107 cases of the virus have been identified at Aberdeen University as of 2 October, including a number of students who visited the popular Bobbin pub opposite the main campus.

Pictured: Wavell House - Photograph: University of Aberdeen

The concrete 1960s building is one of the more basic, lower-priced accommodation blocks at Aberdeen, attracting students with a tighter budget for their studies.

The university has heavily publicised its new "free food box" policy on social media since the reversal, however, details of the original prices they intended to charge stranded students, many of whom are suffering from Covid-19 or worried they might be incubators, have been conspicuously absent from official online channels. The controversy is the latest in a line of criticisms of management handling of Covid-19, which have also included provision of mixed messages to students who think they are suffering from symptoms, and an excessive amount of sometimes 'strongly-worded' emails about the crisis.


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