Students could be forced to self-isolate again before the end of the academic year if they want to return home to their families at Christmas.
At least 30 universities across the UK have seen confirmed coronavirus outbreaks since the return to campuses this month, including cases linked to student accommodation in Aberdeen, Dundee, St Andrews and Glasgow.
The first semester of the academic year typically runs until mid-to-late December but ministers are considering whether to cut short teaching time to ensure students are able to return home before Christmas day.
Gavin Williamson, the UK Government’s education secretary, told the House of Commons on Tuesday that students may be required to self-isolate towards the end of the current university term to ensure they can be with their families.
He told MPs it is “essential” measures are put in place to ensure students could be with their loved ones during the festive period while “minimising the risk of transmission” of Covid-19.
Christmas at home ‘absolute priority’
Mr Williamson said: “Where there are specific circumstances that warrant it, there may be a requirement for some students to self-isolate at the end of term and we will be working with the sector to ensure this will be possible, including ending in-person learning if that is deemed to be necessary.”
Nicola Sturgeon was asked during her daily coronavirus briefing whether similar measures are being considered for universities in Scotland.
Ms Sturgeon insisted it is an “absolute priority” for students to be able to return to their families over Christmas and said there would be “decisions to take about the mitigations that need to be put in place to make that happen”.
“No one wants students to be stuck at university for Christmas,” she said. “So we will think through potential steps and potential measures that need to be put in place to make that possible.”
The first minister stressed no decision had yet been made but this “could include things like students maybe having to isolate for a period before going home”.
“These are things that we will think through over the next few weeks so that we can advise students accordingly,” she said.
New Scottish Government guidance
The Scottish Government unveiled fresh guidance on Sunday, stating students struggling with coronavirus restrictions would be free to abandon university halls and return home but only if their family isolates for 14 days.
Shorter visits are only permitted if there is a “reasonable excuse”, such as a bereavement or family emergency, and will otherwise be deemed an “offence” punishable by expulsion or a fine.
Mr Williamson said fresh guidance on students returning home before the winter break will be published “shortly” by his department.