‘Surveillance testing’ to stop virus spread at universities

Scotland’s daily coronavirus death toll hit its highest level since mid-June yesterday as proposals were unveiled for targeted testing of students showing no symptoms of the disease.

Thursday, 1st October 2020, 7:00 am

Nicola Sturgeon said the seven deaths were “a very sharp reminder that Covid is an extremely dangerous virus, as well as a highly infectious one”.

At her daily briefing, the First Minister said more deaths were “a consequence of the virus getting out of control” but said they were “not inevitable” if people stuck to the restrictions. The rise came after Ms Sturgeon warned on Tuesday of transmission among older age groups and national clinical director Jason Leitch cited evidence from around Europe of the virus spreading from the young and leading to higher death counts among the elderly.

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Later at Holyrood yesterday, higher education minister Richard Lochhead revealed the Scottish Government was considering “surveillance testing” to try to stop the virus spreading among asymptomatic people. He said the Scottish Government knew there would be coronavirus outbreaks at universities but, as it was not advised to tell students to stay at home, they were allowed to move into student accommodation.

Mr Lochhead told MSPs it was decided that keeping campuses closed “would have inflicted significant harm on them [students] and the wider higher and further education sector in Scotland”.

In a ministerial statement, he revealed 759 students had tested positive for coronavirus, with that number expected to rise in coming days.

He said: “The advice pointed out the risks and likelihood of Covid outbreaks when the new academic year got under way.

“We were never advised to keep students at home but we were advised that mitigation factors were vital and we have worked together with colleges, universities, accommodation providers, unions and other key stakeholders throughout this crisis on the safe return of further and higher education.” Mr Lochhead said “every possible effort” was being made to allow students to return home safely at Christmas.

The government is now “exploring the merits of some targeted surveillance Covid testing, to better understand the level of asymptomatic cases of the virus among the student population”, he said.

Scottish Labour’s education spokesman Iain Gray accused the government of presiding over a “gold standard government fiasco” and an “insipid” defence of government actions”.

Mr Gray also demanded the government publish the advice it received.

He said: “The truth is that the government failed to prepare a plan properly for students’ return and then, panicking, rewrote and contradicted their own advice every few hours over the weekend, communicating randomly by press release and tweet.

“Universities were left to police the guidance, ever changing, to provide food and to refund rents. Now, universities are ordered to provide ‘gold standard support’. Well, this is a gold standard government fiasco just like the SQA results shambles, to which many of these young people were also subjected.”

In recent weeks, calls have been made for mass testing at university halls of residence to track the spread of the virus.

Mr Lochhead said surveillance testing was now under consideration, adding: “We remain mindful of clinical advice about the limitations of asymptomatic testing and the need to prioritise our testing capacity in line with our testing strategy.

“However, we are exploring the merits of some targeted surveillance testing focused on individual institutions to understand the level of asymptomatic cases.”

He said he was “disappointed” to hear of instances where universities or accommodation providers were not adequately caring for students in their halls of residence.

Earlier, Scotland’s 19 universities and higher education institutions confirmed a package of ten measures to support student wellbeing through the pandemic.

The move was to ensure a minimum level of support students can expect, with three measures specifically aimed at students self-isolating or quarantining in university accommodation.

This included “very regular” check-ins, help with or the provision of support to ensure food and other basic provisions are supplied, and the provision of cleaning equipment and support with laundry.

The measures also include promotion of hardship funds for students, extra support for those in digital poverty and the inclusion of student representatives in how universities respond to outbreaks.

The latest National Records of Scotland figures published yesterday record 4,257 deaths from confirmed or suspected coronavirus up to Sunday.

Of these, ten deaths were recorded in the previous week – five in hospital, four in care homes and one at home or in another non-institutional setting.

Ms Sturgeon said Scotland has recorded 640 new coronavirus cases in the previous 24 hours, representing 10.3 per cent of newly tested individuals, down from 11.5 per cent on Tuesday. A total of 29,244 people have now tested positive in Scotland, up from 28,604 the previous day. There are 137 people in hospital with the virus, up 14 in 24 hours. Of these, 14 are in intensive care – down two from the revised figure of 16 for the previous day.

The First Minister also highlighted weekly figures showing a 60 per cent increase in hospital admissions. In the week to Friday, 94 people were in hospital, up from 58 the previous week.

Ms Sturgeon said it could be about a month before restrictions introduced last week, which ban people from going into other’s homes, have an impact.

She said: “As night follows day, if we allow infections to continue to rise, they will go from younger people to older people, people in older, vulnerable groups will get sick, be admitted to hospital and intensive care and die.

“And that’s the path this virus will take if we won’t get in its way and interrupt it.

“The measures we introduced last week, a month from now or thereabouts, should start to have an impact on the figures we are seeing.”

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