Students to be offered tests before travelling home for Christmas
Students in Scotland are to be offered COVID-19 tests before they travel home for Christmas, Further Education minister Richard Lochhead has announced.
The UK-wide scheme will include Scottish students, with testing delivered by universities and UK Government contractors in the coming weeks.
But Lochhead was unable to give a date for the testing to begin or to commit to a similar regime being in place for students’ return in January.
The scheme closely matches plans laid out by the UK Government earlier for students in England and Wales to try to minimise the spread of coronavirus across the country as students travel home for Christmas.
Between 60 and 80,000 students in Scotland could be tested as part of the scheme.
The tests that will be offered are different from the “gold standard” PCR swab tests currently in use across the UK, Lochhead said.
These will be ‘lateral flow’ tests, the same as currently being used in the Liverpool mass-testing trial.
Lochhead said that students will be expected to take two tests five days apart before making in journey.
Those who test positive may be required to take a more accurate PCR swab test and will be asked to self-isolate along with their close contacts.
All students will also be asked to reduce social contact for two weeks before travelling, he said.
He added that students will be allowed to travel anywhere in Scotland or the UK as they will be exempt from restrictions stopping most people from travelling between council areas of different COVID-19 levels.
Lochhead admitted, however, that the Scottish Government “don’t know the scale of the challenge exactly” because the number of students who will volunteer to take the tests before travelling, as well as the number who will choose to stay in accommodation, is unclear.
He added that governments across the UK are going to “bust the gut to make this happen”.
Lochhead said that the Scottish Government is “reflecting on [the] lessons” from the handling of students’ initial move in August, which saw students having to isolate in halls of residence on arrival following major outbreaks.
He was unable to say when exactly the new testing strategy would begin.
Scottish Conservative MSP Jamie Greene asked whether tests would be completed with enough time for those who test positive to make it home for Christmas following a two week period of isolation.
Lochhead responded: “Our absolute objective is to make sure that students can return home for Christmas and therefore, the timetable will have to reflect that and that's what we're asking of the universities.”
Asked about students’ return in January, Lochhead said: “We can't quite predict what situation will be in January, but we are determined to give as much clarity as we can to students and ensure that universities are giving clarity to students so they know what to expect when they come back after new year.
“[But] it will not be normal and we will certainly do what's right for public health reasons, and that will be first and foremost in our minds, as well as take into account other harms that we'll have to look at other viruses at that time.”
Scottish Greens health spokesperson Alison Johnstone said: “I have consistently called for Scotland to show much more ambition on asymptomatic testing, so I welcome this move in the right direction on students.
“However, I’m concerned that the minister couldn’t commit to the same robust testing when students return in January. We don’t want to see the same mess of students being locked in halls again in the new year. Testing can’t be a one-off initiative, it needs to be an ongoing commitment.
“It’s also clear the Scottish Government is relying on the UK-wide privatised testing system when we could be building capacity in Scotland.
“It’s vital the Scottish Government steps up its ambition on testing and contact tracing. It isn’t accurate to say there was no evidence on asymptomatic testing until recently. I wrote to the First Minister with evidence in April.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: "The Scottish Government have been dragged to testing students. I have been urging the Scottish Government to undertake the testing of students since July so this plan is better late than never. The failure to do this in the autumn allowed new clusters of COVID-19 to break out across university communities.
"Students and universities need clarity about how these tests will be rolled out, what the testing window will be and whether tests will be made available at the end of the holiday period.
"We also need to ensure that there is support available for those students who are unable to return home over the Christmas period, including mental health support where it is needed."