Nicola Sturgeon has apologised to thousands of students across Scotland as her ministers ponder new measures to allow self-isolating youngsters to abandon university accommodation and return home.
Multiple outbreaks of coronavirus at campuses across the country this week have resulted in students being told they should not visit hospitality venues or socialise with anyone outside their household this weekend.
It was also confirmed restrictions coming into place on Friday mean those living in halls of residence are not to be allowed to return home to stay with family, prompting fears many could be forced to spend Christmas away from their loved ones.
Ms Sturgeon said she backed institutions taking tough disciplinary measures against the worst rule breakers, including expulsion, but said this would only be used “as a last resort and as a backstop”.
The first minister has faced criticism amid suggestions of mixed messaging and questions over the scientific evidence behind some of the measures.
Police have been instructed to monitor student behaviour both in and out of campus but Ms Sturgeon and chief constable Iain Livingstone said disciplinary action, such as fines, would be taken only as a “last resort”.
Students told not to go to bars this weekend
Around a quarter of a million students have been instructed not to visit bars, restaurants or other hospitality this weekend, and hundreds are self-isolating after outbreaks in Aberdeen, Dundee, Fife and Glasgow.
Scotland reached a new peak in daily coronavirus cases on Friday, at 558, with the positivity rate of tests also rising to a high of 9.5%. Hundreds of cases have been linked to campuses this week after universities returned for the start of term.
Speaking at her daily coronavirus briefing in Edinburgh, Ms Sturgeon said the thought of students lonely and away from home after being forced to self-isolate in halls “upsets me just as it upsets everybody”.
She said: “The first thing I want to say is directly to students: I am so sorry, so heart sorry that this time in your life is being made as tough as it is just now.
“I really feel for you, but I feel especially for those of you who are starting university for the first time, and of course living away from home for the first time.
“This is an exciting time in your lives but I remember from my own experience that it is also a time of adjustment and it’s also a time of homesickness as well.
“That is the case for students every year without Covid-19 but it is much more difficult given the circumstances you are all facing right now.”
Ms Sturgeon said she wanted to be clear to any students who felt as if they were being blamed for the spread of Covid-19 that this was not the case but acknowledged the number of students testing positive is expected to rise.
Opposition leaders have accused Ms Sturgeon of a “basic failure” to anticipate the problem and provide more testing on university campuses.
Some students have also questioned why they were encouraged to take up residences while most learning is still taking place online.
Ms Sturgeon denied that she was pressured by universities to allow a fuller return to campus to avoid a financial black hole, and said officials were “looking at what might be possible” for self-isolating students who wish to return home.
She said: “I’m going to be frank, that’s a difficult balancing act because if you go home after you’ve been asked to self-isolate that may have implications for your family, who then also may be asked to self-isolate if you test positive.
“I wanted to let you know that we are looking at what might be possible there and it is our aim to issue some further guidance on that over the weekend.”
The first minister was also challenged on her government’s communication of the new measures after a diktat banning home visits appeared to be announced on Twitter by national clinical director Jason Leitch.
Professor Leitch had just hours earlier given contradictory advice on television, telling students: “It’s not going to be illegal. Nobody’s going to put barriers up.”
Ms Sturgeon also took to social media on Thursday to clarify details outlined in a joint Universities Scotland and Scottish Government statement and appeared to second-guess it even further during the briefing.
Universities Scotland had stated all students would be “required” to download the Scottish Government’s Protect Scotland app on their phones but the first minister said this was not mandatory, just “strongly encouraged”.
Scottish Government’s ‘lack of foresight’
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said students were being “threatened with expulsion and handed last-minute mixed messages, creating uncertainty about if they can go home or if they’ll miss Christmas with their families”.
“Treating them this way is just not right,” he said. “The Scottish Government needs to clear up this confusion straight away. Decisions need to be communicated far more clearly and consistently.”
Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard said it was becoming “clearer with every passing hour” that students were being punished by the government’s “incompetence and lack of foresight”.
“Hundreds of students are being forced to remain in cramped student accommodation and the guidance is as clear as mud,” he said. “The Scottish Government has serious questions to answer.”