LONDON — Prince Charles has warned that up to 1 million young people in Britain may need “urgent help’’ to protect their futures from the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic, as politicians debated whether to keep British university students from returning home for Christmas.
The Prince of Wales said the social and economic crisis created by the coronavirus is reminiscent of the upheavals of the 1970s, when youth unemployment was one of the pressing issues facing British society.
“There has never been a time as uniquely challenging as the present, when the pandemic has left perhaps another million young people needing urgent help to protect their futures,’’ he wrote in the Sunday Telegraph. “The task ahead is unquestionably vast, but it is not insurmountable.”
The comments came as the spread of COVID-19 accelerates across the U.K., prompting the government to impose new restrictions.
Lawmakers and public health experts have criticized Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government for problems with the national test-and-trace program that was supposed to help control the spread of the disease and reduce the need for limits on social interactions.
Young people have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic, even though they are less likely to become seriously ill. The closure of schools during the spring coronavirus lockdown cancelled national achievement tests in Britain and threw university admissions into disarray. First-year students have had to forego social events seen as a rite of passage at the start of their college careers, and the job prospects for graduates look bleak as unemployment rises.
Now many university students in Britain — who have just begun returning to campus after the summer holidays — are facing increased restrictions amid COVID-19 outbreaks in residence halls. Thousands are self-isolating at dormitories in Glasgow, Manchester and Edinburgh.
In Manchester, students are chafing at a lockdown they say was imposed without warning. One group taped “HMP MMU” to a window, suggesting the dormitory had become Her Majesty’s Prison at Manchester Metropolitan University.
Dominic Waddell, 21, a first-year filmmaking student, said some students weren’t even sent emails telling them about the new lockdown.
“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,” Waddell told the Press Association. “They’re saying the safety and wellbeing of our students and staff and the local community is our top priority, but it doesn’t really seem like that if they haven’t allowed us time to prepare for this.”
With health experts saying that virus outbreaks at universities were entirely foreseeable, the debate has begun over whether students will be allowed to return home for Christmas.
The opposition Labour Party urged the government on Sunday to promise that students will be permitted to go home for the holidays. David Lammy, a leading Labour lawmaker, told the BBC the government must improve the country’s virus testing system to make sure this is possible.
“We want young people home with their families at Christmastime, and they need the testing to make sure that that can happen,” he said. “By Christmas, we would have had the coronavirus for nine months. That we couldn’t get a test, track and trace system in place by then has got to be described as pathetic.’’
The struggles of students underscore growing indications that the virus is spreading throughout the U.K. New infections, hospitalizations and deaths have all risen sharply in recent weeks.
Britain already has Europe’s worst death toll from the pandemic, with about 42,000 confirmed deaths. But scientists who are urging more restrictive measures are being challenged by critics fearing further damage to the economy.
Johnson last week announced a 10 p.m. curfew on bars and restaurants throughout England, along with other restrictions on social interactions, but many health experts said the measures didn’t go far enough.
Several regions have already imposed tighter restrictions to control local spikes. By Monday, about one-quarter of the U.K.’s 65 million people will be living under these heightened restrictions.
London, home to almost 9 million people, was added to the government’s COVID-19 watchlist as an “area of concern.”
“It’s very likely that London will find itself in a situation with restrictions,” said Lammy.
Some lawmakers have criticized the Conservative government for abusing its power by restricting civil liberties without parliamentary approval. The House of Commons on Wednesday will consider an amendment to existing COVID-19 legislation that would give Parliament the right to vote on any new restrictions.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden defended the government’s decision to move forward without prior approval from Parliament.
“I think it’s important in a crisis like this, when things are moving very rapidly, that the government has the power to move quickly’’ to contain the virus, Dowden told Sky News. “But then it is important that MPs hold us to account and vote on that, and that is exactly what is happening.”