Good news on the horizon, as Higher Education Minister Richard Lochhead outlines mass testing and more stringent social distancing to ensure safe travels for students returning home over the festive period.
The Scottish government has officially laid out plans to enable students without COVID to travel home for Christmas, following in the footsteps of England’s announcements earlier today. Plans include the introduction of a 30 minute turnaround COVID test.
Higher Education Minister Richard Lochhead confirmed that asymptomatic students will be tested prior to their return home, and indicated that a “staggered and early departure” will be necessary to avoid “a great surge of movement.”
Mr Lochhead informed MSPs that, of the 240,000 students at Scottish universities, approximately between 60,000 and 80,000 may wish to return home for Christmas.
Universities will be told to “ensure that in-person teaching and assessment ends early enough to allow students time to get home at the end of term”. Many universities have had no in-person teaching for a considerable time, much to some students’ anger, especially full-fee paying students. It is unlikely to be an issue for universities to ensure this nationwide.
Lochhead added: “We will advise any student who wants to return home for the end of term to voluntarily reduce their social mixing for two weeks before going home – this means going out only for essential reasons and exercise.
“This is the advice for all, but it is most vital to those students leaving from those areas where they are designated at higher levels of the strategic framework and those who are returning to households with vulnerable family members.”
Mr Lochhead said that early access to testing for students with symptoms “has already proved to be effective in controlling outbreaks”.
He added: “Now we will be including Scottish students in a UK-wide initiative to test some asymptomatic students prior to the end of term.”
Mr Lochhead has illustrated that the Scottish government will be utilising new COVID testing technology, which allows for results within as little as 30 minutes. The test works by antigen detection. Antigen tests are immunoassays that detect the presence of a specific viral antigen, which implies current viral infection. COVID has a unique marker like all viruses enabling infection detection.
However, these tests are not as sensitive as PCR tests used in the main testing programme, which could raise concerns over detecting early developing COVID. This is why two tests will be essential before students can be allowed to travel safely.
Lochhead said: “Although these tests are not as sensitive as the gold-standard PCR tests we use for our main testing programme, they are able to identify a substantial proportion of cases, and appear to be more sensitive when detecting people with the highest viral load, so potentially those who could be most infectious.
“We are currently planning on the basis that two tests will be necessary, five days apart, with PCR confirmation for positives, but that position may change as public health professionals and clinicians take into account of any new evidence from the pilots in England which is being produced.”
“We intend to offer testing on a voluntary basis to all students who are returning home, based on local and logistical circumstances.”
For a while it has been speculated that mass testing will be required as logic dictates.
BBC Scotland expected that students would be tested twice, five days apart, with those testing negative on both occasions able to travel home.
Universities Scotland have previously said up to 65,000 students could be involved. Lochhead estimates up to 80,000. Universities are also discussing changing the dates of semester ending to stagger the outflow of students across the country.
However some have raised concerns that 160,000 tests (as students need two) are unrealistic, or too ambitious.
Conservative education spokesperson Jamie Greene welcomed the policy but warned that “160,000 tests is ambitious” and called on Mr Lochhead to give more information about how long tests will take for those being tested – and whether they will have enough time to isolate, if necessary, before returning home.
After all, it is nearly the second week of November, and the amount of tests predicted to be necessary could exceed 160,000.
However Lochhead is confident the government can achieve this task.
Mr Lochhead stressed the Scottish Government is “going to bust a gut to make this happen”.
Other critics such as Labour education spokesperson, Iain Gray said the return of students in the summer was one of the “worst handled episodes in this pandemic”.
He added: “It is very good that we have a plan and it is good that it is a four-nation plan, given movement across the United Kingdom.
“What is rather worrying is the lack of detail provided. Can the minister tell us when the testing will actually begin, who will carry the cost of the test and whether he is recommending that all students should be tested before returning home?”
Mr Lochhead replied, stating that: “The UK Treasury hopefully will be covering the cost but we’re in discussions about that and hopefully we will get clarity in due course.
“Absolutely, I recommend very strongly that all students that are considering going home for Christmas to voluntarily come forward and take advantage of asymptomatic testing that will be made available to them.”
Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, welcomed the announcement.
He said: “We agree that it’s important that students living away from their families have the chance to reconnect at Christmas and this needs to be carefully managed to reduce risk.
“We welcome the measures announced by the Scottish Government, especially developments which have made asymptomatic testing an option for the student community ahead of the winter break. This will help students to make judgements based on their personal and family circumstances. Urgent work now begins to get the testing strategy in place in the next few weeks.”
“A significant number of students are expected to stay in their university accommodation for a variety of reasons, including many international students and some students for whom university is their home. Universities are putting in extra efforts to ensure that students remaining on campus over Christmas and New Year are looked after.”
Brig will bring further updates to all students over the next month, articulating any and all information surrounding getting a test. It is imperative students are vigilant and keep abreast of the situation to allow us to return home safely. Any updates at University of Stirling will be relayed as soon as possible.
Featured Image Credit: The Herald