Week after week for months, I implored the First Minister to introduce the mass testing of asymptomatic students to try to prevent outbreaks in university towns when students returned to study and, week after week, I was told it was being “considered”.
Only after it was too late and students were being told to self-isolate in their halls, many of them away from home for the first time in their lives, did the government accept that asymptomatic testing was necessary.
It was the biggest movement of people since the beginning of the crisis but the government did not think it necessary to test students, despite the calls of student leaders, scientific advisers and MSPs.
Autumn testing needed
As we approach Christmas, the Scottish Government has accepted that the mass asymptomatic testing of students can help us through this crisis. It will allow students to return home to see their family over Christmas while preventing outbreaks as students travel the length and breadth of the country.
But just as we needed to do in the autumn, we need to test them when they return to university too.
Having been dragged into the testing of students, we must now press for them to go further.
I raised this with the Higher and Further Education Minister, Richard Lochhead, in Parliament and was told the government must listen to their scientific and medical advisers.
But it was Devi Sridhar, the chair of global public health at Edinburgh University and a member of Nicola Sturgeon’s Covid-19 advisory group, whose recommendation that widespread testing be available before students went back was vetoed by Scottish Ministers.
Must learn from mistakes
When I raised the matter again with the First Minister, I was told the government have not ruled anything out and that they are still to determine what role testing will play if students are to return to university as they did in the autumn.
But it is as clear now as it was in the summer that this is absolutely necessary if we are to prevent clusters of outbreaks in university towns.
This change of approach by the government is welcome, if long overdue, and, of course, we should be pleased to see that they are taking steps to help students return home for Christmas if they should choose to do so.
But they must also learn from their mistakes. I have worked constructively with the government throughout this crisis, as no one should want them to fail in their efforts to keep the public safe. But working with them through this has also meant offering advice and criticism where it is needed and asymptomatic testing is just one of those places where it is needed.
As the government eventually listened to the pleas of MSPs to introduce asymptomatic testing, and now the testing of students, I am sure they will accept that the testing of students returning to university is necessary.
The question is not if, but when and I hope they listen to these calls before it is too late and we see clusters in university towns and students being made to self-isolate for weeks on end in their university halls all over again.
Willie Rennie is MSP for North East Fife and leader of the Scottish Lib Dems.