Nicola Sturgeon has been urged to rewrite “nonsense” rules which ban students from entering their family homes, after she was accused of leaving Scotland's young people in limbo by sending confusing messages about new coronavirus restrictions.
The First Minister has come under mounting pressure after a string of draconian Scottish Government-backed rules were issued to 250,000 students, in which they were told not to go to pubs or restaurants this weekend and were warned that they face being expelled from university if they defy guidelines.
Yesterday, students were told that rules may be changed so that those self-isolating could do so at their family homes. It was the third time in as many days that the SNP government’s position changed on the issue, after students were told on Wednesday that they could visit their parents' homes, only to be told on Thursday that they could not.
Meanwhile, Ms Sturgeon insisted that downloading a contact tracing app would not be compulsory, less than a day after students were told it was “required”.
She also assured students that the request not to visit hospitality venues would be in place for this weekend only, hours after undergraduates at some universities were warned the diktat could be extended if cases did not fall.
The mixed messages came as Scotland recorded its highest daily total of coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic, with 558 new infections. In a joint statement, the UK and devolved governments warned a “second wave” of the virus is underway.
Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, accused ministers of “going round in circles” by issuing contradictory statements, with young people “left in limbo while the SNP fumble for an answer”.
“The confusion and uncertainty continues for Scotland’s young people,” Mr Ross said. “The SNP still haven’t cleared things up. This is a shambles and students deserve better. We need to remember that in many cases we are talking about young people, as young as 17, living away from home for the first time and facing the possibility of not being able to return for up to six months, including over Christmas.”
At her daily briefing, Ms Sturgeon said that while students are not currently allowed to go home to visit their parents indoors, her administration was assessing whether self-isolating students can be allowed to leave their accommodation and return to their family homes. However, she admitted this would be a “difficult balancing act” given the risk of this spreading the virus.
I’m an SNP member and a fan of Nicola Sturgeon but this is far from good enough. Those of us who work in unis & our trade unions warned this would happen. Teaching is online, why are these students paying £600 p/month for a room to study online? Honesty & accountability required https://t.co/hTnHpjWbjw— Maureen McBride (@mmcbride84) September 25, 2020
More than 1,000 students in Scottish university halls are currently being forced to self-isolate. Covid outbreaks have been reported at halls of residence in Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen and Edinburgh.
Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh said similar outbreaks had been seen in American universities when students returned there and that the recent spike in cases had been entirely predictable.
“Given what happened in other countries, we should have been better prepared for this and the key thing is testing,” she said. We should have had much more widespread testing, particularly for students coming from overseas.”
She added: “They absolutely need to sort out the ‘they can’t go home to their family’ nonsense. This is my personal view, that’s not sustainable.”
The National Union of Students yesterday said it was “unjust” for students to have to follow different rules to the general population, while there have been widespread fears that the situation could lead to mental health problems for students.
James Chalmers, Regius Professor of Law at the University of Glasgow, said rules issued on Thursday night were unclear and accused the Scottish Government of “outsourcing coercion to a press release”.
If ever you could have anticipated unintended consequences, it was SNP's over-reaction (and draconian measures) to deal with COVID amongst students. Well done Nichola; looks like destroyng Scottish Higher Education may be one of your legacies. https://t.co/3Bg0ZvTA70— Claire Fox (@Fox_Claire) September 25, 2020
He added: “If you are going to threaten to punish people you have to do that on the basis of clear and carefully thought through rules. You cannot do it this way.”
The new rules, which mean that students now face by far the toughest restrictions of any section of society, have been imposed despite Iain Livingstone, the chief constable of Police Scotland, revealing yesterday that only one in ten of illegal house parties involved them.
Bruce Adamson, the Children and Young People's Commissioner for Scotland, has raised concerns about the human rights implications of the new measures targeted at students.
Ms Sturgeon said that while student outbreaks had been a factor in the recent record spike in cases, she warned there was also an increase in the virus in other sections of society.
She insisted the decision to allow students to return to campus was not linked to the drop in income universities would have suffered had they been told to stay away. However, Richard Lochhead, her universities minister, yesterday described financial concerns over a loss of accommodation income as “a consideration” that was taken into account.
The First Minister said she did not want to "underplay the significance" of asking students not to visit pubs this weekend, but said it is not the only difficult request she has made during the pandemic.
Ms Sturgeon said: "I have asked people for six months now not to visit their vulnerable relatives in care homes.
"I'm having to ask people to do really difficult things all of the time. So I am asking all students for a weekend to not go to pubs, and hopefully that will help us stem these outbreaks."