Hundreds of students across Scotland have been told to self-isolate amid a growing coronavirus outbreak in university halls on the day the country recorded its highest-ever number of newly confirmed cases.
Nicola Sturgeon insisted “tough guidance” was already in place for further education but said discussions were ongoing about what further measures may be needed after a number of students came down with the deadly virus.
A total of 486 new positive cases were recorded in Scotland overnight into Wednesday, 7.8% of all people newly tested, taking the total to 25,495 since the pandemic began. A further two people have died after contracting the virus.
Of the new cases, 224 were recorded in Greater Glasgow and Clyde, 107 were in Lanarkshire and 57 were in Lothian. Ms Sturgeon said many more people were being tested than earlier in the year but the numbers were still a cause for concern.
Students have been warned house parties are strictly off-limits after a significant outbreak of coronavirus at Glasgow University and a number of other clusters across Scotland, just days after police were called out to break up illegal gatherings.
Aberdeen University’s principal and vice-chancellor, professor George Boyne, confirmed in an internal email that a number of students at the university had tested positive, including some staying in Wavell House at Hillhead Student Village.
Police were forced to break up two parties attended by hundreds of students at halls of residence on Saturday, just days before the new cases were confirmed, with two gatherings being shut down less than 24 hours apart at New Carnegie Court.
When the parties were taking place, the maximum number of people who could meet indoors under Scottish Government rules was limited to six from two different households, with two-metre social distancing restrictions also in place.
All residents and close contacts of individuals with confirmed cases have now been asked to self-isolate for 14 days with immediate effect, unless advised otherwise.
Meanwhile, 500 residents at Parker House, which provides private accommodation to Abertay and Dundee University students, have been told to lockdown while contact tracing is carried out following one positive and a number of other suspected cases.
St Andrews University has also implemented a voluntary lockdown following reports of large gatherings of students in parts of the town and beach last week.
Speaking during the Scottish Government’s coronavirus briefing on Wednesday, the first minister acknowledged student life can lend itself to the spread of the virus but appealed directly to students to follow the rules.
“If you are asked to self-isolate, and I know many of you are already in that position, it is really important that you follow that advice,” she said.
“From me, for now, please know that we appreciate the sacrifices you’re making at this really important stage of your lives.
“It’s not yesterday that I was at university, but I still remember what an important stage of life it is and nobody wants you to be living under these restrictions, but it is important that you take care not put yourselves at risk and obviously not to inadvertently put other people at risk.
“What we’re asking you to do now is for the collective good of everyone but we do appreciate your sacrifices and thank you for it.”
Ms Sturgeon welcomed St Andrews University’s decision to ask students to take part in a voluntary lockdown and said she would fully support institutions “taking action they think is necessary, albeit proportionate, to deal with any outbreaks”.
“We have asked universities to do that,” she said. “We have put in place guidance, we talked to the sector regularly and have ongoing discussions to see whether we need to strengthen the guidance in any particular respects.”
Scotland’s national clinical director, professor Jason Leitch, also urged students to play their part in stopping the spread of the virus, stating: “We need you not to have house parties, I could not be more clear.”
He asked those at university to follow the Facts guidance, download the Protect Scotland app and ensure they self-isolate correctly if necessary.
Professor Leitch said he had spoken with Scotland’s student leaders on Tuesday to discuss how best to support those attending university.
“There are now a number of outbreaks in our higher and further education institutions around the country, with significant numbers of positive cases,” he said.
“We need every student across Scotland to help us stop the spread of the virus.”
The latest outbreak comes after a Survation poll found more than half of people living in university towns and cities feared the return of students would lead to a spike in coronavirus cases in their areas.
Tens of thousands of students are due back on campus across the UK in the coming days, and earlier this month government scientific advisers warned it was “highly likely” there would be significant outbreaks linked to universities.
Dr Daniel Chandler, associate director of public health at NHS Tayside, warned previous outbreaks in university settings indicate the virus can spread “very quickly” in student accommodation.
NUS Scotland president Matt Crilly said he was concerned about the wellbeing of students being asked to self-isolate in “pokey wee rooms”.
He told Radio Tay News: “We are really worried about the mental health ramifications on students just now. If you are being asked to self-isolate in a little room for two weeks, it’s really difficult.
“So we think institutions – halls providers, universities, colleges – should do all they can to support students through this, both by providing material support like food, internet access, but also accessing to counselling and mental health support services.”
Debbie Dyker, Aberdeen University’s interim director of operations, said: “We are working closely with Police Scotland, who are doing regular patrols of our campus, and we are enhancing our own security to ensure everyone follows the guidelines to stop the spread of the virus and help keep us all safe.
“We must stress that further breaches such as those that occurred on Saturday evening will not be tolerated and for any student found in breach of the guidelines appropriate action will be taken.”
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