There is a “realistic possibility” students may not be able to return to their homes at Christmas, the deputy first minister has said.
John Swinney warned that if the virus is not contained enough by the festive period, the Scottish Government may be unable to support the return of students to their homes over the break.
Speaking on Good Morning Scotland, the education secretary said: “We want to avoid this at all possible cost because we want students to be able to return home but I’ve got to be realistic.
“If we have a situation where the virus is not being controlled then we will have to look at other scenarios and plans.
“There is a lot of thinking and work going on within the Scottish Government, Universities Scotland, the National Union of Students and also with the governments in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to try and make sure this can be undertaken as safely as possible.
“But there obviously is a risk that if the virus is not contained then we may not be able to support the return of students to their homes, we want to avoid that but it is a realistic possibility.”
Mr Swinney was also asked about a “staggered” return to universities for students in the country.
This would mean students would return to campuses at different times to avoid a mass exodus across the country which happened in September and led to a spike in coronavirus infections.
He said: “We may have to look at students leaving campus over a phased period at the end of term and not getting to one particular moment where there is an exodus of people going home.
“Equally we are looking at January and how students are returning but this is conditional on the health and wellbeing of students and in what circumstances they are going back to in their own homes.
“They could be going back to homes with people who are vulnerable which would raise major issues about whether it was advisable for students to switch households at the turn of the year.”
Scottish Conservative north-east MSP Liam Kerr criticised Mr Swinney’s “wait and see” approach.
He said: “Many students who move to Aberdeen for university have families located across the UK so John Swinney’s ‘just wait and see’ approach simply isn’t good enough.
“With just eight weeks until Christmas, the education secretary has now left students across the north-east worrying about the prospect of spending the festive period alone – it’s an abysmal way for people to be treated.
“The SNP Government made chaotic mistakes when students returned to university in September and lessons must be learnt from this.
“Swinney must give clarity to students on the situation across the north-east instead of treating them like second-class citizens.
“Proper planning must be made to ensure Christmas can be enjoyed by everyone.”