Professor Fiona Measham, co-founder of The Loop, a harm reduction charity, said she had warned “all summer to anyone who would listen” about the risks of students going back to university amid coronavirus restrictions.
Northumbria Police said four people died – three of whom were students – over the weekend after they are believed to have taken illegal drugs.
Two 18-year-old women living in the same Newcastle University accommodation died after they were thought to have taken ketamine, while a 21-year-old from Northumbria University died after allegedly taking MDMA separately. An 18-year-old man, who was not a student, also died on Saturday after allegedly taking MDMA.
“There’s no nightclubs and pubs close at 10pm,” Professor Measham, chair in criminology at Liverpool University, said.
“Nightclubs are a semi-safe space, they have registered door staff and security, the bigger clubs often have paramedics, they have chillout spaces. If you don’t have nightclubs open, you lose that safety net.”
She added: “My concern was that over the summer there were illegal raves and now the weather is turning bad, young people will be having parties in private residences but they won't have paramedics on hand.”
Ms Measham, whose charity tests pills and powders found by police or door staff to identify substances of concern, said another issue was students might be “scared” to call an ambulance if someone falls ill after taking drugs at a private party, in a situation where nightclub security would.
But Newcastle University’s vice chancellor Professor Chris Day said freshers’ week had not been a factor in either of the young students’ deaths.
During a virtual news conference, he said: “This happened in the first 48 hours, freshers’ week had only just started to kick off.”
Prof Day said: “At Newcastle University, we were looking forward to welcoming two bright young students to our community who had such a promising future ahead of them.”
One of the students has been named as 18-year-old Jeni Larmour, who was described as a “model pupil” and “a spirited and independently minded girl” by her former school in Northern Ireland.
Northumbria Police have arrested a total of 10 people in connection with the four deaths and carried out searches of student accommodation using drugs dogs.
Prof Day from Newcastle University added: “Both ourselves and Northumbria take a supportive and hard line against drug use and I have written to all of our students to remind them of the dangers of using illegal substances following these tragedies.
A Northumbria University spokesperson said: “We are deeply saddened to confirm that one of the young people who died over the weekend was a Northumbria University student.
“We are in contact with the student’s family and friends to offer any support we can do at this tragic time.”
A spokesperson told The Independent the university has also written to students in light of the 21-year-old’s death, reminding them of points of contact if they feel pressured into any illegal activity and if they have any concerns.
No 10 has been approached for comment by The Independent.
Additional reporting by Press Association