Keir Starmer has demanded urgent mental health support for students as struggling first years described being trapped in university halls by coronavirus.
Thousands of students have been forced to self isolate at universities such as Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh as the virus grips campuses.
The Labour leader held a video call with students, where two freshers described how their entire flats had tested positive for Covid-19 shortly after arriving.
Students described struggling to make friends and feeling alone while locked in their halls.
Sophie, a first year at Leeds University, said her six-person flat all contracted the virus within days of arriving.
She said: “Not only are you socially distant but it is quite emotionally distant. I feel like I haven’t been able to make friends as easily as I could have.
“Obviously it’s what has to happen in this situation but it’s not the type of welcome you really want at university.”
Glasgow University student Eugene said he learned one of his flatmates had symptoms after he travelled home to Fife as the WiFi was too poor in his halls.
All 12 people in his flat have now tested positive for coronavirus.
He said the university had offered a one-month rent rebate and £50 food allowances but it was “too little too late”.
“The Government and the universities should have been a step ahead and I think what’s happening was foreseeable,” he said.
“A public outcry wasn’t required to do the right thing.”
Joe, another fresher from Leeds University, said his flat had enjoyed the unusual bonding experience of having to swab each other for Covid-19.
Aurora, another Leeds student, said some people in her halls had walked for three hours to get a test as the facility on campus was full.
Mr Starmer praised students for coming together to look after each other but said it was clear students having to isolate were having a tough time.
“A few days or weeks into university life – that’s a very lonely place to be,” he said.
“Mental health is a real issue and it’s going to be more of an issue this autumn because of the added anxiety.
“We need to be open about that and say to people – do get the support you need.
“That is why we are calling on the Government today to put in place a support package.”
His call comes after Education Secretary Gavin Williamson admitted that the situation in universities will affect students’ mental health but failed to announce extra support.
Union leaders said students should be allowed to return home from university and study online if they want.
Larissa Kennedy, NUS president, said: “The ongoing uncertainty students face is exacerbating poor mental health, debt and needlessly puts lives at risk.”
Meanwhile, Mr Williamson was told that new funding for skills “will not even reverse the damage” of Tory cuts.
Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green said the £2.5billion package amounts to less than £280 for per person.
Mr Williamson replied: “We recognise the need to make sure that young people have true opportunities, not just about the 50% of youngsters that go to university, but the other 50% of youngsters as well – making sure that they have the opportunities and the qualities that they deserve and they should have an entitlement and the opportunity to take up.”
He said the Tories have a “proud record” of funding educational opportunities.