Scottish students to be offered new fast-track Covid tests

Scottish students who want to return home at Christmas will be told to reduce their “social mixing” two weeks before they leave and will be offered a new speedy Covid test.

A new system of testing, using lateral flow devices which can give a result in just 30 minutes, will be rolled out for the 60,000 to 80,000 Scottish students who are believed likely to want to travel home at the end of term.

The testing procedure was revealed today by universities minister Richard Lochhead in Holyrood, but he also warned returning after Christmas would still not be normal.

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Coronavirus in Scotland: Can students go home for Christmas?
A student wearing a protective face mask outside the main library at the University of Edinburgh in George Square, Edinburgh. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

The lateral flow test is used in the mass testing scheme in Liverpool and can turn round results quickly without the need for swabs to be processed in a laboratory. It uses a disposable device like a pregnancy test, where the nose or tonsils is brushed, and then the brush is placed in liquid.

Addressing MSPs, Mr Lochhead said: “After a tough start to the academic year, many, but not all, students wish to go home at the end of term to see family and friends. This poses a potential risk of virus transmission."

He added: "We will advise any student who wishes to return home to voluntarily reduce their social mixing from two weeks before going home, so only going out for essential reasons and exercise. This is most vital for those students leaving from areas where they are designated at a higher level, and those returning to households with vulnerable family members.

“Enabling easy access to test for students with symptoms has been effective in controlling the virus, but now we'll be including Scottish students in a UK-wide initiative to test some asymptomatic students prior to the end of term. We will be offering testing to students returning home. To do this we will making use of a new Covid technology, lateral flow devices which can provide a result in half an hour.

"Although these tests are not as sensitive as gold-standard PCR tests we use in our main testing programme, they are able to identify a substantial portion of cases and are most sensitive to people with a high viral load. We intend to offer testing to all students on a voluntary basis ... but precise numbers will depend on how many choose to take up the offer.

"We're currently planning on the basis that two tests will be necessary five days apart with PCR confirmation if appropriate. But that may change as new evidence comes forward from England where there have been a number of pilots.”

Mr Lochhead said if students tested positive, they would have to isolate and there would be support available for them.

He said the return to university after Christmas was being planned for, but there were "many challenges set in a context of uncertainty".

“As we stand in November we can't predict the situation in January, but we are trying to give as much clarity as we can to students, but it will not be normal and we will do what is right for public health reasons,” he said.

Universities Scotland director Alastair Sim welcomed the announcement, ”especially developments which have made asymptomatic testing an option for the student community ahead of the winter break."

However Scottish Green health spokesperson Alison Johnstone said she was concerned there was no commitment "to the same robust testing when students return in January.” She added: “We don’t want to see the same mess of students being locked in halls again in the new year. Testing can’t be a one-off initiative, it needs to be an ongoing commitment.

"It’s also clear the Scottish Government is relying on the UK-wide privatised testing system when we could be building capacity in Scotland. It’s vital the Scottish Government steps up its ambition on testing and contact tracing.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said the government had been "dragged" into testing students. “The failure to do this in the autumn allowed new clusters of Covid-19 to break out across university communities," he said.

"Students and universities need clarity about how these tests will be rolled out, what the testing window will be and whether tests will be made available at the end of the holiday period.

"We also need to ensure that there is support available for those students who are unable to return home over the Christmas period, including mental health support where it is needed."

And Scottish Conservative education spokesman Jamie Greene said that while students and their families would be “hugely relieved” that there were now plans in place for a return home for Christmas.

He added: “It shouldn’t have taken a UK Government scheme for the SNP to reluctantly accept our calls for a mass asymptomatic testing among students.

“This new approach is not just sensible, but necessary. Every student who wants to spend time with their families must be allowed to do so and the SNP must give our universities the support they need to manage this situation.”

Earlier at her daily Covid briefing, Nicola Sturgeon said she welcomed the four-nations approach to managing the return of students to their homes for the festive period and the use of the lateral flow devices, which she said worked "like a pregnancy test. and she urged students to get tested before they left university accommodation.

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