Hundreds of thousands of students in Scotland have been banned from socialising and going to bars as coronavirus cases spread to more than 20 universities across the UK.
In a set of rules agreed by Scottish university leaders, students across the country were told they will not be allowed to socialise outside their households and must avoid bars, pubs and other venues.
The new rules include the adoption of a “yellow card/red card” disciplinary system which could lead to students losing their places, while police will help tackle rule-breaking.
“All universities will make absolutely clear to students that there must be no parties, and no socialising outside their households… Breaches will not be tolerated,” Universities Scotland said after a meeting with the higher education minister, Richard Lochhead. Across Scotland, up to six people from two households are allowed to gather in bars, restaurants or outdoors.
It comes after thousands of students UK-wide were forced to go into isolation within days of campuses reopening, as ministers refused to rule out keeping them away from home over Christmas to stop the spread of Covid-19.
Scotland, which is home to about 300,000 students in higher and further education, is particularly affected as the academic year starts earlier than in England and Wales. An outbreak of more than 100 confirmed cases at the University of Glasgow led to at least 600 students being told to self-isolate on Wednesday night.
The outbreak is said to have originated from socialising during the city’s freshers’ week starting on 12 September. Parents complained about a lack of support for their children, including first-year students living away from home for the first time.
Scotland’s University and College Union official Mary Senior said it was “astonishing” that students were being blamed for spreading the virus, and that universities should instead switch to online teaching.
“That is what the Scottish government should be introducing, not threatening students with red cards and banning them from going out,” Senior said.
Institutions in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Dundee also confirmed infections among students, with 500 in Dundee in self-isolation. The University of Liverpool reported 87 confirmed cases, Manchester Metropolitan University more than 30 and a “small number” at Durham University.
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, refused to rule out requiring students to remain on campus over the Christmas and new year period in the event of further outbreaks, telling the BBC: “We just have to work on all contingencies at this stage. I know that people understand it’s an unprecedented crisis and so we do have to work on contingency plans.”
The Guardian reported this month that the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) told ministers that universities were highly likely to have “significant outbreaks” in the coming weeks, and that they needed to be prepared.
“Peak health impacts of these new infections and outbreaks they spark would coincide with the Christmas and new year period, posing a significant risk to both extended families and local communities,” Sage warned.
In England, the government’s guidelines for higher education allow for students to be confined to their halls of residence in the event of local outbreaks, including over Christmas.
But Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, reacted angrily when the Scottish Labour leader, Richard Leonard, raised speculation about students being kept in halls over Christmas.
“Talking right now about things like students not being allowed home for Christmas, that is not helping anybody. We all have to work right now to make sure that we cope with this infection virus in the best way possible,” Sturgeon said in the Scottish parliament.
Glasgow University confirmed that a mobile testing centre would be set up at the Murano student village, one of the two residences where students are self-isolating, and that student unions would be shut this weekend.
The university told the Guardian that staff were checking in with each flat and providing emergency food if needed, but students and parents raised concerns on social media that this was not happening fast enough.
A number of parents told the Guardian that, other than receiving an email telling them to self-isolate, their children had not received any further welfare support. One explained that his first-year daughter was in Murano halls, isolating in a shared flat of 10 after two of her flatmates tested positive on Tuesday.
“They have not been contacted by anyone from the university since the email telling them to isolate. The comments by University of Glasgow on the news suggesting they are in some way supporting the student households are very misleading,” he said. “Where is the duty of care? Meanwhile, the university take almost £600 per month per student for rent.”
Sturgeon said the Scottish government would soon set out further measures to ensure guidance was “rigorously implemented” on campus and in student accommodation after continuing discussions with university vice-chancellors. She said it was important that students “understand their obligations but also that universities are properly supporting them”.
Sturgeon was pressed repeatedly by opposition leaders on whether testing capacity was coping with the rise in demand.
“The fact that we do have a number of positive cases identified, and I would expect that to increase, and a number of students being asked to isolate, is [a sign that] test and protect working. That’s a difficult thing when numbers are as they are but it does show that system is working,” Sturgeon said.