Students locked in their halls were plunged into further chaos after police action was threatened yesterday over posters protesting the measures.
Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) said it respected students ‘right to express themselves’ after reversing an earlier edict to remove all window posters, but warned of police involvement if signs ‘broke the law’.
The warning came after students used Post-it notes and tape to create messages on their flat windows saying among other things ‘HMP Manchester’.
The lockdown of the halls of residence was ordered on Friday by Public Health England and Manchester City Council after more than a hundred students tested positive for coronavirus.
Meanwhile, yesterday human rights lawyers questioned the legal basis of the lockdown after students reported being prevented from leaving their halls by security guards.
Barrister Adam Wagner told The Telegraph that preventing students from leaving amounted to ‘house arrest’ and they could have grounds to sue if it was found they were being detained unlawfully.
Yesterday, MMU said it had no powers to stop students from leaving halls but that they could face fines if they broke lockdown rules.
The university provoked an outcry when an email emerged to one student saying: “[The] display on the windows in your flat needs to be removed. Please ensure these are removed asap.”
Hours later the university backed down saying the email did not ‘reflect the university’s view’ but warning of the potential for police action.
In a tweet, MMU said: “We respect the rights of students to express themselves, but as requested by [Greater Manchester Police] the posters must not break the law or they'll have to be removed.”
MMU declined a request from The Telegraph to define which posters it considered to break the law.
The row broke out after up to 1,700 students were told to stay in their rooms at the Birley campus and Cambridge Halls for 14 days after 127 tested positive for Covid-19.
Students described the ‘scary’ scenes that ensued as they said police officers and security guards arrived at the halls before students had been notified of the lockdown.
Dominic Waddell, 21, a first-year filmmaking student, said: “A few people got an email to announce they were locking down my accommodation, but not everyone got that so there was a big freak-out with everyone.
“There was a security guard that then just arrived at the gate of our accommodation and he wasn't letting anybody leave, not really explaining what was going on”.
Following the reports, Mr Wagner, a barrister with Doughty Street Chambers, described students being barred from leaving their halls as “no different to house arrest”.
He said that local authorities did have the powers to bar exit and entry to premises but had to give statutory notice so those affected could appeal, and warned that students could have grounds for unlawful detention.
Mr Wagner added: “If they are being held with no lawful authority - and there is a chance there is a lawful authority but I think it is a low one - they could be compensated to the tune of thousands of pounds each.”
The Vice-Chancellor of MMU, Prof. Malcolm Press, said yesterday that urgent care packages were being sent to self-isolating students and that the lockdown had been imposed to ‘protect the wider community’
He said: “We expect students to follow the guidance for self-isolation set out by the Government and Public Health England.
“We are unable to prevent our students from leaving the halls, but our students are bright young adults and we trust that they will do the right thing.”