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Coronavirus in universities: Timeline of key moments in ‘biggest movement of people since lockdown’

A sign at Murano Street Student Village in Glasgow, where Glasgow University students are being tested at a pop up test centre.
A sign at Murano Street Student Village in Glasgow, where Glasgow University students are being tested at a pop up test centre.

Thousands of students have moved to university campuses across Scotland this month, leading to a spike in cases of Covid-19 and forcing hundreds into self-isolation.

Questions have been raised about the handling of the reopening of institutions, after students were left confined to their halls and initially urged not to return home.

The Scottish Government published new guidance on Sunday evening, setting out that those who are struggling can return permanently or to self-isolate – but only if other members of the household agree to quarantine for 14 days.

England, where universities return later than in Scotland, has also started to see outbreaks in recent days at university halls, including in Manchester.

We take a look at the key moments in the unfolding crisis below:

July 29: Professor Devi Sridhar, Scottish Government adviser and chair of Global Public Health at Edinburgh University, outlines key steps to allow universities to reopen safely later in the summer, including testing all students on arrival and five days later.

August 7: Prof Sridhar says “strict rules” need to be observed ahead of return of universities. 

Devi Sridhar.

She said: “This year university reopenings are more challenging given they represent a considerable risk to Scotland’s current low prevalence of Covid-19.

“This is due to a large number of non-Scottish students joining the universities (upwards of 50,000) and the difficulty in getting members of this group to comply with guidance around testing, tracing and quarantine given the age profile.”

August 21: Independent Sage says universities should test all students and staff for Covid-19 as they arrive on campus and avoid face-to-face teaching.

Professor Liz Stokoe, co-author of the Sage report, said: “It’s hugely important that universities are reopened, but students will be travelling from all over the country and the world – that will create risks of infection transmission, and so it is essential to put detailed procedures in place so as to guarantee a safe return.”

August 26: Nicola Sturgeon urged to implement a policy of coronavirus testing for all international students coming to Scotland for university. 

Willie Rennie: “Students are arriving for the new term right now. It will be the biggest movement of people since the lockdown and I think we’ve all got a duty to keep them safe.”

First Minister replied: “While we are finalising updated guidance that we’ll publish this week, there are already arrangements in place that universities and colleges are working to deliver.

“Staff and students who are arriving here from certain high-risk countries will have an obligation to quarantine for 14 days, which is a really important foundation whatever the final position is on testing.”

Mr Rennie added: “I’ve been asking about testing for international students every week for a month. We’re still on an emergency footing and the pandemic continues to present a real threat.”

August 29: Reopening universities could spark second coronavirus wave, academics warn. 

General Secretary of the University and College Union (UCU) Jo Grady said: “A million young people are being encouraged to travel all around the UK, move into halls of residence and congregate in large numbers. This could lead to universities being the care homes of any second wave of Covid.”

September 1: Scottish Government issues updated guidance for colleges, universities and student accommodation.

Higher Education Minister Richard Lochhead said: “Remote learning will significantly reduce the number of people on campus at any one time, while everyone on campus or in student accommodation must follow the rules around quarantine, self-isolation, physical distancing and using face coverings.”

September 6: The return of students to university is a “huge logistical exercise” against the backdrop of Covid-10, according to Labour. 

NHS staff hand out test kits to Glasgow University students as they arrive for testing at a pop up test centre at the Murano Street Student Village in Glasgow.

Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said: “What we need going forward is to ensure we do have the test, track and isolate strategy properly set up.”

September 9: Universities must not send students home in event of Covid-19 outbreak. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson: “Opening universities is critical, again, for students’ life chances and, again, the health risks to individuals are low.

“Of course, many university students are in the age bracket where we have seen the infection rates rise recently…

“My message to students is simple – please, for the sake of your education and your parents’ and your grandparents’ health, wash your hands, cover your face, make space and don’t socially gather in groups of more than six, now and when term starts.”

Sir Anton Muscatelli.

Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, principal and vice-chancellor of Glasgow University, said he had “little concern” about the potential spread of coronavirus on campus.

He added:  “We are minimising the amount of face-to-face contact but, as colleagues have also stressed, we’re working very hard to ensure that we stress to our students that their conduct off campus is what they need to be mindful of.”

September 14: Students return to classes across Scotland.  

In a statement, the principals of Scotland’s 19 higher education institutions, said: “Campuses will look and feel different this term. With a blended approach to teaching in the first semester, there will be fewer people on campus than usual and our spaces will be reconfigured to support physical distancing, enhanced hygiene protocols and the use of tech to support NHS Scotland’s Test and Protect contact tracing system.

“As students, we ask you to recognise the important role and responsibility that you have, on and off campus, to keep yourself, and the wider communities around you, safe from coronavirus.”

September 21: Coronavirus outbreak at St Andrews University after freshers’ party in halls. 

Willie Rennie.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie, whose North East Fife constituency includes St Andrews, said: “This should act as a chilling reminder of the need to follow the advice of the scientists and the health professionals.

“If we give this deadly disease the opportunity to spread it will do so like wildfire.

“I appreciate that we are asking young people to sacrifice some of the best bits of university social life but the alternative is so much worse for everyone.”

September 22: Hundreds of Dundee students told to self-isolate at Abertay University.

Parker House, where hundreds of students were asked to self-isolate.

Dr Daniel Chandler, associate director of Public Health and chair of the incident management team at NHS Tayside, said: “We understand that asking all residents of Parker House to self-isolate poses challenges; however, we know from outbreaks in other university settings across Scotland that the virus can spread very quickly in student accommodation.”

September 23: Scotland records highest number of new coronavirus cases since pandemic began, following significant outbreak at Glasgow University. Some students at Abertay University and Aberdeen University also asked to self-isolate.

Nicola Sturgeon said: “What we’re asking you to do now is for the collective good of everyone but we do appreciate your sacrifices and thank you for it.”

NUS Scotland president Matt Crilly said: “We are really worried about the mental health ramifications on students just now. If you are being asked to self-isolate in a little room for two weeks, it’s really difficult.”

September 24: Walk-in test centres to be rolled out near universities in the coming days, First Minister pledges. 

Nicola Sturgeon said: “There is never any complacency for me in saying these things but there is no issue at the moment of students who are symptomatic getting tested and getting tested quickly and getting those results.”

Richard Leonard.

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard said: “This is the same failure we’ve had since day one of the pandemic – a failure to anticipate, a failure to plan and above all a failure to test.”

September 24: Students across Scotland told not to go to pubs and hospitality venues over the weekend.

University and College Union’s (UCU) Scotland official Mary Senior said: “It is astounding that the Scottish Government and principals are blaming students for Covid outbreaks on university campuses.

“This is an incredibly contagious virus and students were encouraged to return to campuses.”

This is an incredibly contagious virus and students were encouraged to return to campuses.”

Mary Senior, University and College Union

September 25: First Minister backs disciplinary action as a ‘last resort’ against students. 

Nicola Sturgeon said:  “I would not expect universities – and I spoke to principals this morning and I know this is not their intention – to use discipline as a first resort.

“But as with the police, if you have people who are just flagrantly breaching rules then of course discipline and enforcement has to be part of the answer.”

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

She later added: “I am so sorry, so heart sorry, that this time of your lives is being made as tough as it is just now.

“I really feel for you, but I feel especially for those of you starting university for the first time and, of course, living alone for the first time.”

Patrick Harvie.

Scottish Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie added: “Students must be supported to isolate comfortably and safely, not be effectively locked up.

“The Scottish Government must clarify the guidance quickly, and give students an answer about whether it’s both lawful and safe for them to return home to isolate.”

September 26: Hundreds of Manchester students told to self-isolate after 127 Covid-19 cases. 

MMU halls of residence in Manchester.

The General Secretary of the University and College Union, Jo Grady, said: “We warned last month of the problems with moving thousands of students across the country and the time has come for urgent action from ministers and universities to protect staff and students.”

Glasgow University to refund all students in halls of residence one month’s rent, along with a £50 payment for food. 

University principal Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli said: “We are offering everyone in our residences, regardless of whether they are isolating or not, a one-month rent refund to compensate for the disruption they are facing, and any financial hardship they may have encountered.”

September 27: Scottish Government issues updated guidance confirming students can return home on a long-term basis, as long as they follow rules on self-isolating.

September 28: Higher Education Minister Richard Lochhead said many students wanted to remain on campus. 

Mr Lochhead said: “It is challenging at the moment, especially if they are self-isolating, but they are enjoying the opportunity of making new connections, of at least meeting their tutors now and again.

“So I don’t expect, you know, a mass exodus from Scotland’s campuses, but the opportunity’s there for those who are struggling.”

Jamie Greene MSP.

Scottish Conservative education spokesman Jamie Greene MSP said: “The guidance issued late last night was clearly another rushed, last-minute job and it looks like the fog hasn’t lifted. It has thrown up as many new questions as answers.”

This could have been a bump in the road and instead it’s been a car crash.”

Jamie Greene, Scottish Conservative education spokesman

“The SNP have muddied the waters more. Families are still waiting for clarity on who needs to self-isolate if students return home from halls of residence. Students don’t know if they’ll be able to go home for reading weeks or at Christmas.

“A difficult situation has been compounded by SNP mistakes, U-turns and oversights. This could have been a bump in the road and instead it’s been a car crash.”