University students living in halls of residence or flats have been banned from visiting family homes and could face Christmas without their loved ones as health officials ponder restrictions over the winter break.
More than 1,000 people across the country have been forced to self-isolate this week following an outbreak linked to student accommodation, including hundreds of residents in Dundee, Aberdeen and Glasgow.
Scotland’s national clinical director, Jason Leitch, said he had received questions about whether undergraduates living in shared flats or halls of residence form a separate household and therefore cannot return to their parents’ homes.
Professor Leitch said the “law was clear” on the issue and applied to “even mum and dad” so students in this situation should now only return to their family home under exceptional circumstances, such as to carry out caring responsibilities.
In an update to Twitter at Thursday lunchtime, he said: “I was asked last night whether students in halls and flats can go back to parents’ homes.
“To clarify, they are a separate household. There are exceptions, for example, caring responsibilities, but the law is clear: they can’t meet indoors with another household – even mum and dad. Sorry.”
Professor Leitch had earlier suggested students may have some discretion on returning home but said the Scottish Government would need to take a view in the coming months about whether individuals should be told to stay on campus over Christmas.
It comes amid fears Scotland could be forced to follow England’s lead on the issue after UK health secretary Matt Hancock refused to rule out a ban on students returning home in December because of the risk of spreading the virus.
Ms Sturgeon’s official spokesman said it is too early to say if students would be allowed home for Christmas but it is understood the UK Government’s Sage advisory group has recommended people should stay on campus over the holidays.
It comes after 500 residents at Parker House, which provides private accommodation to Abertay and Dundee University students, were told to lockdown this week while contact tracing is carried out following one positive and a number of suspected cases.
Aberdeen University has also confirmed a number of positive cases and asked students staying at properties in the Hillhead Student Village to self-isolate just days after police were forced to break up a number of illegal house parties.
Meanwhile, St Andrews University implemented a voluntary lockdown following reports of large gatherings of students in parts of the town and beach last week.
Ms Sturgeon was accused of failing to plan for the outbreak and came under a barrage of criticism from opposition leaders at first minister’s questions on Thursday.
Scottish Conservative Holyrood leader Ruth Davidson said just two of the planned 22 walk-in centres near universities had opened so far, and the number is only expected to rise to around half by the end of October.
She said the number of new cases “show that we can’t wait over a month to get the centres up and running, we need them now”.
But Ms Sturgeon insisted there was no issue with testing capacity on campuses and walk-in centres are already open in Glasgow and St Andrews. She said booking would also open on Thursday and Friday for sites in Aberdeen and Edinburgh.
“There is never any complacency for me in saying these things but there is no issue at the moment of students who are symptomatic getting tested and getting tested quickly and getting those results,” she said.
One of Ms Sturgeon’s own advisers on the pandemic, Edinburgh University’s Professor Devi Sridhar, has repeatedly called for mass testing of students on campus.
Schools different to universities bc schools usually bring kids together from a geographically-bound local community. Universities bring people from across the world together. Usually fantastic, but exactly how viruses can spread easily. Need strong testing & quarantine policies.
— Devi Sridhar (@devisridhar) July 22, 2020
She said in the summer that all students should be tested on arrival, either at airports or within universities, followed by a second round of tests five days later, and has suggested the risk of transmission could be greater in universities than in schools.
Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard also questioned the first minister on the spike in cases, blaming a “failure” by the Scottish Government.
He said: “Students were told that they could return to universities and the communal living that goes with that safely.
“And we’ve all been told that test and protect was working well. But now students are suffering the consequences of your government’s failure.
“Students, some as young as 17 and away from home for the first time, are living without established support networks.
“We know that this in itself can have an impact on young people’s mental health. On top of this, some are self-isolating in cramped accommodation. And many more will be anxious that they won’t be allowed to go home for Christmas.”
But the First Minister accused the Labour leader of not understanding what the Scottish Government is trying to do to quell the spread of the virus and attempting to needlessly heighten people’s anxieties.
Scottish Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie said outbreaks “should have been expected”, with testing sites in place before universities returned, and compared university halls of residence to cruise ships where coronavirus spread at the beginning of the pandemic.
He said: “Just weeks into term and we’ve already seen Covid outbreaks in universities in Edinburgh, St Andrews, Dundee, Aberdeen, and now Glasgow.
“Over a thousand students in halls are in self-isolation, and many of these will be first-year students away from home for the first time.
“My heart goes out to all of them. They need their universities and the Scottish Government to work urgently to provide the support that they need.
“There is no doubt that this situation is playing a significant role in relighting the fires of the pandemic here in Scotland.
“And most frustrating is how avoidable it was. Just like the cruise ships at the beginning of the pandemic, we have brought people from far and wide together into densely populated accommodation, creating the perfect conditions for the spread of this virus.
“Incredibly the basic precaution of having testing easily accessible to these young people has not even been in place in most of our university towns. ”
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie asked about routine testing of asymptomatic students, saying it would be an “extra safety measure”.
Ms Sturgeon said this will be kept under consideration, adding: “I’m not saying we should never do that.
“The problem is, we have got to be careful that a negative test then doesn’t lead a student to say ‘I’m fine, I don’t need to bother with isolation, I don’t need to bother abiding by social distancing and all of the rules’.”
Students urged not to go to pubs or restaurants this weekend
Scottish university students have been urged not to visit pubs, house parties or restaurants this weekend in a bid to stem an outbreak of coronavirus linked to undergraduate accommodation.
Following crunch talks between university principals and further and higher education minister Richard Lochhead on Thursday, institutions have pledged to make it “absolutely clear” that parties are strictly off limits.
Students will be told that this weekend, the first under tougher Scottish Government guidelines, there should be no socialising outside their own households and they should not go to bars or any other hospitality venue.
Staff presence will be stepped up at student accommodation and a strict yellow/red card system will be implemented for breaches of student discipline – which could be escalated to a potential discontinuation of study.
Students will also all be required to download the Protect Scotland app.
Universities Scotland said the new guidance, agreed with the Scottish Government, was a “necessary step at this crucial moment of managing the virus in the student population, to protect students and the wider community.
Mr Lochhead said: “We expect everyone to comply with public health advice and, as new laws come into force on Friday, it’s even more important institutions make every effort to ensure the rules are understood and followed – and appropriate actions are taken if not.
“We know that these are difficult time for many students and we are grateful to them for the sacrifices they are making to protect themselves, their fellow students and the wider community.”