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Opposition leaders in Scotland have accused ministers of a “shambolic” response after they loosened tough coronavirus controls imposed on students last week.
Scottish ministers issued fresh guidance to universities and students on Sunday evening to clarify and soften emergency rules that had appeared to ban students from going home after a surge in Covid-19 cases on campuses.
Thousands of students who were told they had to remain in isolation have now been told they can now return home in certain circumstances, after a backlash from student leaders, lawyers and some academics. However, the clarification failed to placate opposition parties at Holyrood.
Willie Rennie, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, called for an urgent statement in the Scottish parliament from John Swinney, the Scottish education secretary, and said there was a clear need for routine Covid-19 testing of students.
“Issuing new guidance on a late Sunday evening is no way to communicate clearly and effectively,” Rennie said. “It is yet another panicky response from a government that should have been ready for this. I warned the first minister for weeks that this was coming as it was the biggest movement of people since the lockdown.”
Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative leader, criticised the government’s failure to update parliament on changes to the rules to allow proper scrutiny and its initial failure to issue clear and timely guidance.
“The SNP have slept in and caused a first-class shambles,” he said. “They were slow to prepare and they’ve been slow to react. Just like the blended learning and exam fiascos, they’ve sat back when they should have stepped up.”
The new rules uphold last week’s request for all students to stay in their university accommodation and again warn that it is a criminal offence to breach the regulations against meeting more than other household.
That had appeared to ban the thousands of students told to self-isolate after local outbreak, or who had a positive test for Covid-19, from returning home. But the update now makes clear students can return home for short periods for a family emergency or wellbeing reasons, including mental ill health. Those count as a “reasonable excuse” under Scottish law, the government said.
It said students self-isolating could return home temporarily as long as they avoided public transport and remained in isolation at home. They could also choose to go home permanently, under the same conditions.
The concession led to fresh demands on Monday from opposition parties and the National Union of Students for students to get full rebates on all accommodation fees and rental contracts, and the blanket use of online tuition.
The University and College Union, the main union for university staff, wrote to the prime minister on Monday urging him to intervene to ensure all universities move online and that students who wish to are allowed to return to their homes safely.
The UCU general secretary, Jo Grady, has said that given the growing prevalence of Covid-19 across the country and outbreaks on university campuses, online teaching should become the norm in the higher education sector.
“We are only a week or two into the new academic year and we already have Covid-19 outbreaks at institutions in Newcastle, Manchester, Leeds, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee, and these are unlikely to be the last examples,” Grady said. “My union is not prepared to take chances with the health of students, our members and the communities they serve. It is clear that remote learning should be the default for campus life while we are in this precarious position with the virus.”
There was widespread confusion over the rules last week as the Scottish government and universities reacted to numerous Covid-19 outbreaks in student accommodation and repeated cases of students breaching bans on multiple households meeting up.
The largest outbreak led to more than 172 students at Glasgow University becoming infected, in a cluster centred on Murano Street student halls. Over the weekend police were called to Edinburgh University’s Pollock Halls student accommodation to close down illegal gatherings.
After Universities Scotland, the sector’s umbrella body, warned that breaches “would not be tolerated” and universities said students faced sanctions including possible expulsion for rule breaches, Bruce Adamson, Scotland’s children’s commissioner, said the policies could breach students’ human rights.
Richard Lochhead, the Scottish minister for further and higher education, said on Monday morning he was aware that some students were going back to their family homes. He said many were struggling with the restrictions.
“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, albeit a lot of their learning is online,” he said on BBC Radio Scotland. “So I don’t expect a mass exodus from Scotland’s campuses, but the opportunity is there for those that are struggling.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Scottish ministers accused of ‘panicky’ response to Covid outbreaks on campuses | Politics