All students returning home from university for Christmas will be offered a new “30-minute” test for coronavirus before travelling, but no plans have been confirmed for their New Year return.
Between 60,000 and 80,000 people are expected to leave their student accommodation as the semester draws to a close, with further education minister Richard Lochhead promising to “bust a gut” to make sure the testing is carried out.
But the minister was heavily criticised during his statement to parliament on Wednesday afternoon for not being able to say what plans are in place ‘ for students heading back to campus in January.
Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie said the country could not afford for students to be treated the way they were in September, while Labour education spokesman Iain Gray called the lack of information “woeful”.
As many as 160,000 tests could be conducted, with students expected to take the test twice — including those not showing any symptoms of the virus — as part of a UK-wide initiative.
Universities ‘welcome’ test news
Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, said: “Student welfare has guided our decision making throughout the pandemic and that will continue.
“We agree that it’s important that students living away from their families have the chance to reconnect at Christmas and this needs to be carefully managed to reduce risk.
“We welcome the measures announced by the Scottish Government, especially developments which have made asymptomatic testing an option for the student community ahead of the winter break.
“This will help students to make judgements based on their personal and family circumstances.
“Urgent work now begins to get the testing strategy in place in the next few weeks.
“The mobile student population, those who intend to change households for the winter break, are one subset of total numbers.
“Scotland has high numbers of commuter students, who are already home. Significant numbers of students are expected to stay in their university accommodation for a variety of reasons, including many international students and some students for whom university is their home.
We need to do it after Christmas as well, we cannot afford for students to be treated the way they were earlier this year.”
Willie Rennie North East Fife MSP
“Universities are putting in extra efforts to ensure that students remaining on campus over Christmas and New Year are looked after.
“We welcome the Minister’s affirmation of the importance of students sustaining their studies and look forward to more detailed planning for their safe return in the New Year.”
Students told to reduce ‘social mixing’ before going home
Mr Lochhead said talks were ongoing to create plans for January’s return.
He said: “We will advise any student who wants to return home for the end of term to voluntarily reduce their social mixing for two weeks before going home.
“This means going out only for essential reasons and exercise.
“Universities will be asked to make any necessary adjustments to scheduling to ensure that in-person teaching and assessment ends early enough to allow students time to get home at the end of term.
“I see that Universities Scotland has highlighted the staggered dates for the end of in-person teaching at Scottish universities from late November to mid-December, so they are not expecting a great surge of movement.”
On the test, Mr Lochhead said it would not be a “panacea” but hoped it would help try to stem further outbreaks.
He added: “We are currently planning on the basis that two tests will be necessary, five days apart, with PCR confirmation for positives, but that position may change as public health professionals and clinicians take account of the new evidence that’s coming forward from England, where there’s a number of pilots.”
Government ‘dragged’ into testing
Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie said: “The Scottish Government have been dragged to testing students.
“I have been urging the Scottish Government to undertake the testing of students since July so this plan is better late than never.
“The failure to do this in the autumn allowed new clusters of Covid-19 to break out across university communities.
“Students and universities need clarity about how these tests will be rolled out, what the testing window will be and whether tests will be made available at the end of the holiday period.
“We also need to ensure that there is support available for those students who are unable to return home over the Christmas period, including mental health support where it is needed.”
Scottish Conservative Jamie Greene said: “Students and their families will be hugely relieved that the government are finally going to put plans in place to get them home for Christmas.
“It shouldn’t have taken a UK Government scheme for the SNP to reluctantly accept our calls for a mass asymptomatic testing among students.
“This new approach is not just sensible, but necessary.
“Every student who wants to spend time with their families must be allowed to do so and the SNP must give our universities the support they need to manage this situation.”