Thousands of students at Scottish universities asked to take tests before going home for Christmas

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Simon Johnson
·3 min read
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A St Andrews university student leaving open of the halls of residence on campus - Stuart Nicol
A St Andrews university student leaving open of the halls of residence on campus - Stuart Nicol

Tens of thousands of students at Scottish universities will be asked to voluntarily take a Covid-19 test and limit their social mixing before they return home for Christmas, SNP ministers have disclosed.

Richard Lochhead, the Higher Education Minister, said asymptomatic students will be invited to take two tests five days apart if they wish to go home.

They will also be asked to reduce their socialising for two weeks before returning to their families, only going out for "essential reasons" and exercise.

Mr Lochhead told the Scottish Parliament that universities will also adjust their schedules to ensure a "staggered and early departure" of the students to prevent a "great surge of movement" that would increase the danger of them spreading the virus.

However, he estimated that only between a quarter and a third of the 240,000 students at Scottish universities will change their household over the Christmas period.

The remaining 160,000 to 180,000 include students from abroad and the rest of the UK "electing to stay here over the holiday period" and Scottish-domiciled youngsters who study from home.

Richard Lochhead, the Higher Education Minister - Getty Images Europe
Richard Lochhead, the Higher Education Minister - Getty Images Europe

Opposition MSPs welcomed ministers' decision to start testing students as "better late than never" following a series of major outbreaks when they arrived at halls of residence in September.

But they criticised the lack of detail provided by Mr Lochhead over when youngsters can go home, and whether they will be tested again before they return to university for the second semester in the new year.

Airport chiefs also accused the SNP of double standards after ministers rejected their proposals for airline passengers to be tested twice instead of having to endure 14 days of quarantine when they arrive in Scotland.

The announcement came as Michael Gove held talks with the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish first ministers over agreeing a common travel plan for Christmas.

Ministers in England and Wales unveiled similar plans for university students to return home, with institutions in high risk areas such as Manchester being a key focus.

Mr Lochhead said students in Scotland will be invited to take the new Lateral Flow Test, which detects antigens from the virus. The self-administered test delivers results in 30 minutes and uses a nose and throat swab.

Although they are not as sensitive as the "gold standard" polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests that are used in the main testing programme, he said "they are able to identify a substantial proportion of cases."

He said testing would be offered on a "voluntary basis" with those who test positive given a PCR test to confirm they have the virus.

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But Mr Lochhead warned the Lateral Flow Tests cannot tell whether someone is incubating the disease, meaning students returning home will be asked to continue following all other precautions to reduce transmission risks.

He said guidance will be published shortly, including on travelling home safely, and further advice will be unveiled in the coming weeks over the arrangements for them returning in the new year. The UK Government has announced students can leave English universities between Dec 3 and 9.

Matt Crilly, NUS Scotland president, welcomed the announcement but added: "We also need a clear strategy for January return: students deserve better than another term of uncertainty." 

Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, said "urgent work" will start on getting the testing strategy ready and ensuring students who do not return home are cared for over the festive period.

But an Edinburgh Airport spokesman said: "We remain confused as to how a student travelling from Glasgow, which has a Covid per 100,000 rate double that of Greece, can use a test that is not deemed not suitable for the border."