Students struggling with life on campus because of coronavirus have been told they can return home on a permanent basis but could be fined hundreds of pounds if they are caught on short visits to other households.
Hundreds of people tested positive for the virus as universities began the new term last week and thousands more have been told to self-isolate in halls. All students were also “required” to avoid hospitality at the weekend in a bid to stem the spread.
But ministers were warned they faced a “mass exodus” from university accommodation after national clinical director Jason Leitch confirmed undergraduates, some as young as 17, would not be allowed to return home until restrictions are lifted.
The Scottish Government has since published fresh guidance stating those who are struggling can return permanently or to self-isolate – but only if other members of the household agree to quarantine 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”.
Aberdeen University issued an open letter to students this weekend following reports of rule breaking from a number of students, warning “breaches will not be tolerated” and could be met with suspension, expulsion or a fine of up to £250.
Rules on home visits
Speaking during her daily coronavirus briefing on Monday, Nicola Sturgeon said the “vast majority” of people had followed the rules over the weekend and insisted her priority was to make sure students can return home for Christmas.
“Don’t assume that the rules in place now for home visits will still apply at Christmas,” she said.
“We review the rules every three weeks and that’s why we cannot provide specific guidance for Christmas right now because that will, of course, depend on the course of the pandemic.
“But I want to be very clear that it is absolutely our priority to make sure students can go home for Christmas, as I know everybody will want to do.”
Ms Sturgeon issued a “big thank you” to those who had stuck with rules but has faced criticism amid reports of students, some of whom could be carrying the virus, fleeing the “halls of horror” into the waiting cars of their parents.
Rector on ministers’ ‘incompetence’
Dundee University rector Jim Spence said university principals and the Scottish Government had gone “way beyond what is acceptable in a democratic society by singling out students with a threatening missive which read like a declaration of war”.
Writing for The Courier, he accused ministers of “insouciant arrogance and staggering incompetence” that had endangered the health of students and their families.
Meanwhile, the Scottish Conservatives claimed the new guidance “throws up as many new questions as answers” and the party has lodged a parliamentary question demanding more support, guidance and clarity for students.
Tory education spokesman Jamie Greene said: “A difficult situation has been compounded by SNP mistakes, U-turns and oversights. This could have been a bump in the road and instead it’s been a car crash.
“This is all evidence that the first minister should be announcing new regulations in the Scottish Parliament where MSPs can challenge the flaws straight away. The lack of immediate scrutiny has clearly made this situation worse.”
Notice periods have been introduced for those permanently leaving student halls – either seven or 28 days, depending on whether the tenancy began after September 28.
The first minister said the incubation period of Covid-19 means she is “absolutely sure” there will be increased numbers of infections among students “for several days to come” but she said responsible actions will help stem the spread.
She warned a rising number of people were being taken into hospital and treated in intensive care units.
A total of 222 new positive tests were recorded in Scotland overnight into Monday, taking to the total to 27,798. Hospital admissions increased by 17 to 122, while a further four patients were admitted to intensive care.
“The number of people in hospital is rising and nobody should be under any illusion about that,” Ms Sturgeon said.
“I don’t say this to alarm or worry people unduly but I say it to, I hope, make everybody realise that we have to take this rise in cases seriously and do all of the things that are being asked of all of us to try to stem that rise and bring Covid back under control.
“Just as was the case earlier this year, not getting Covid back under control will result in lives being lost and none of us want to see that.”