THE SCOTTISH Government is “exploring the merits” of routinely testing students after 759 learners have testing positive amid Covid-19 outbreaks in halls of residence.

Ministers are also exploring whether term dates could be shifted at some institutions in order to ensure students can safely return home for the Christmas break – while mobile and walk-through centres are being rolled out across student populations.

But the SNP has come under fire for its lack of a routine testing strategy for students and its handling of revised guidance being published – leaving students in confusion over whether they can return home to self-isolate.

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Universities Minister Richard Lochhead told Holyrood that in the context of a global pandemic, “there were no easy, risk-free options”.

He added that after agreement with stakeholders, telling students to stay at home and learn solely online “would have inflicted significant harm on them and the wider further and higher education sectors”.

He said: “We were never advised to keep students at home but we were advised that mitigation factors were vital.

“All of us – students included – are being asked to follow the same rules on socialising and self-isolation.”

Mr Lochhead said that a total of 759 students have already tested positive for Covid-19 and “many more are self-isolating".

He added: “Due to the incubation period of this virus and the testing that is taking place, we expect to see more positive cases in the coming days.”

Mr Lochhead confirmed the Scottish Government is considering introducing Covid-19 screening or routine testing for students as has been rolled out at Cambridge University and in Nottingham.

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He said: “We remain mindful of clinical advice about the limitations of asymptomatic testing and the need to prioritise our testing capacity, in line with the testing strategy.

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

Nicola Sturgeon has previously insisted her “priority” is to enable students to safely return home for the Christmas break instead of having to remain in cramped student accommodation without seeing their family.

Mr Lochhead told Holyrood that “we want students to have the option to return home safely at Christmas”.

He added: “We are currently working with the sector on the best approach. This includes looking at public health measures, staggered term end dates, and transport considerations.

“We will work with the UK Government and other administrations to bring as much consistency across these islands as much as possible.”