Students have been banned from visiting their family homes and will be ordered to stay away from pubs, after a surge in coronavirus cases in Scottish halls of residence left more than 1,000 teenagers in self-isolation.
Nicola Sturgeon was accused of a “shocking lack of foresight” for failing to do more to prevent a rapidly escalating crisis, with a series of major Covid-19 outbreaks emerging in university accommodation since students arrived earlier this month.
In a draconian set of new rules agreed between universities and backed by SNP ministers on Thursday night, all students will be ordered to “avoid all socialising outside of their households” including visiting pubs, bars or restaurants this weekend.
It means students will face significantly harsher rules than any other group in society.
It now seems that the only way students are allowed to go to the pub is if they’re in for a shift. Retweeting this because the message remains the same: we owe our young people so much better than this. https://t.co/ESQNJFk6pQ— 𝚊 𝚐𝚕𝚊𝚜𝚐𝚘𝚠 𝚜𝚎𝚕𝚔𝚒𝚎 (@JennyLConstable) September 24, 2020
It was also agreed that students will face tough disciplinary action, including being kicked out of university, if they break coronavirus rules. They will be forced to download the Scottish Government’s contact tracing app, despite ministers previously insisting doing so would be strictly voluntary.
Around 600 people in University of Glasgow accommodation, and a further 500 at Abertay University in Dundee, have been forced to self-isolate following outbreaks in halls of residence. on Thursday, NHS Lothian said 120 cases of coronavirus have been identified in an outbreak at Edinburgh Napier University.
Meanwhile, students have been banned from going home to their families, meaning those in university accommodation face being confined to their “prison-like” halls over Christmas.
Due to the Scottish Government’s ban on people from more than one household meeting up in homes, teenagers were warned that they would be breaking the law if they go to their parents’ home at weekends or holidays, with the rule to potentially remain in place for up to six months.
Jason Leitch, the Scottish Government’s national clinical director, was forced into an embarrassing u-turn after he initially said that students could visit their parents only to later admit that was not the case.
On Thursday, Ms Sturgeon issued a social media plea to students to follow the new rules. She said the order not to visit pubs applied only to this weekend, although sources within Universities Scotland said the rule would be kept under review and could yet be extended.
However, there was an immediate backlash to the decrees, with students describing them as discriminatory, unfair and claiming young people were being treated as scapegoats.
1/ To all students - I’m so sorry COVID is making this special time of your lives so tough. But it won’t be forever and the more we get the virus back under control now, the sooner you’ll get a bit of normality back. So, please do what’s being asked of you— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) September 24, 2020
Monica Lennon, Scottish Labour’s health spokeswoman, said students were being treated “like criminals” and urged ministers to come up with a better plan.
“Many students work in hospitality, so telling them to keep away from pubs, coffee shops and restaurants is impractical,” she said.
“Ministers must urgently come to Parliament and take responsibility for the mess that’s been created.”
Matt Crilly, NUS Scotland President, said the measures were "deeply concerning" and showed "a complete disregard for students’ mental health and wellbeing".
He added: “The announcement by Universities Scotland and endorsed by the Scottish Government unfairly blames students for the spread of coronavirus and takes the unjustified step of applying different rules to students over and above the rest of the adult population."
The spike rise in cases linked to university accommodation has been a major reason for Scotland recording the highest number of daily cases since the start of the pandemic this week. On Wednesday, 486 cases were confirmed, a record high, followed by 465 on Thursday, the second-highest daily total.
scottish students BANNED from going to pubs and restaurants🥴 so much for not making one side of the population bare the pressure of the tougher restrictions nicola— wiki kowalczyk (@wikikowalczyk) September 24, 2020
At Holyrood, the First Minister came under attack for a lack of preparation for the return of students.
Devi Sridhar, a University of Edinburgh public health expert and a key advisor to Ms Sturgeon, said in July that all students should be tested for the virus on arrival and again five days later, if universities were to reopen safely. However, her plan was not adopted. SAGE, the UK Government’s advisory group has also issued warnings about the risk of the virus spreading at universities.
Ms Lennon added: “The Scottish Government has displayed a shocking lack of foresight and now many students feel alone, with no family or friends to support them.”
Cases have also been confirmed at University of Aberdeen and St Andrews halls, with the spread often blamed on illegal freshers’ week parties.
The mother of one student who had tested positive at the University of Glagow’s Murano Street student village, which has capacity for 1,100 students, told the BBC: “You’ve got kids stuck in what are essentially cells, I think the architect of Murano was actually famed for prison design. They’re not great rooms. I think it’s really not helpful for mental health.”
Matt Hancock, the UK health secretary, admitted it was possible that students in England could be warned to stay in halls over Christmas. Mark Drakeford, the First Minister of Wales, said his administration would “certainly contemplate” forcing students there to stay at university over the holidays.
Richard Lochhead, the SNP universities minister, described the new rules as “a welcome package of additional actions”.