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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 11 November 2020

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, University and College Students (Support), Covid-19 Testing (Health and Social Care Workers), Covid-19 Support (Tourism and Hospitality), Urgent Question, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Housing Market (Islands)


Contents


University and College Students (Support)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Lewis Macdonald)

The next item of business is a statement by Richard Lochhead, on universities and colleges: supporting students to return home safely at the end of term. The minister will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.

14:54  

The Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science (Richard Lochhead)

I last stood in front of Parliament at the end of September to make a statement about supporting students through the global pandemic. Today, I want to provide a further update, specifically about supporting students to return home safely at the end of term for the festive holidays.

It is important to set out why education in our colleges and universities is so important at this time as we live with Covid until a vaccine arrives. This is probably obvious to many, but it is worth reiterating in the context of balancing all the harms that are caused by the virus: learning at college or university has a positive effect on students’ personal development and on their wellbeing and life chances. In addition, it is crucial to our ability to develop the trained professionals that we need to support key services such as health and social care. It is also important for our economic growth, in particular as we recover from the negative impacts of both Covid and Brexit, as it provides a pipeline of the talent that we need to continue to grow our country.

I appreciate how difficult it might be at times to keep sight of that in the midst of the global pandemic. I also appreciate how difficult it has been for our students throughout the pandemic, and for staff in their efforts to ensure that learning can continue this year. The population as a whole has had to adapt continuously as Scotland has responded to the crisis, and students have been no exception.

For some students, the experience has been particularly tough, given that it may be their first time away from home or they may have come from other countries or had personal circumstances that have exacerbated any challenges with which they have been presented. I remain grateful to those students who have adjusted and continued to strive to achieve the education that they rightly deserve against the backdrop of the global pandemic. Again, I also thank the staff who have helped them to get through it and to achieve what they have achieved.

After a tough start to the academic year, many—but by no means all—students wish to go home at the end of term to see their family and friends. Of the 240,000 students who are usually at Scottish universities at this time of year, we expect between 60,000 and 80,000 to travel home at the end of term. Some college students will also travel, but in many cases the numbers will be smaller.

That means that around 160,000 to 180,000 students will not change their term-time address or household. That will include international and United Kingdom students who elect to stay in Scotland over the holiday period, students who commute from home and care-experienced students for whom university is home. The broad range of estimates that I have quoted reflects how challenging it is to predict student movements.

That said, we expect that a substantial number of people will wish to travel. As with travel involving large numbers of the population as a whole, that poses a potential risk of virus transmission. Our challenge is to look after the wellbeing of our students by enabling them to return home while keeping them, and the rest of society, safe, and helping them to keep their loved ones and communities safe. That is no easy task, but we have considered it in detail. Today, I am announcing the measures that will support students who choose to return home to do so safely.

First, student welfare is of paramount importance.? College and university students will receive early and clear advice on how to stay safe, and those who choose to stay in university accommodation over the holiday period will be well supported.

Secondly, there will be staggered and early departure, irrespective of the level of the strategic framework in which an institution currently finds itself. Universities will be asked to make any necessary adjustments to scheduling to ensure that in-person teaching and assessment ends early enough to allow students time to get home at the end of term.? I see that Universities Scotland has highlighted today the staggered dates for the end of in-person teaching at Scottish universities. Those dates run from late November to mid-December, so Universities Scotland is not expecting a great surge of movement.

A third measure will involve taking extra care. We will advise any student who wants to return home for the end of term to voluntarily reduce their social mixing for two weeks before going home. That means going out only for essential reasons and exercise.? That is the advice for all, but it is most vital for those students who will be leaving from areas that are designated as being at a higher level in the strategic framework, and those who are returning to households where there are vulnerable family members. I am sure that students will want to do all that they can to ensure that they do not take the virus back home with them.

The fourth measure is testing, which has been raised numerous times in the chamber. Enabling easy access to testing for students with symptoms has already proven to be effective in controlling outbreaks, and we will now be including Scottish students in a UK-wide initiative to test some asymptomatic students prior to the end of term.?

The final measure in our plan is safe travel. All college and university students who are planning to travel home will be given guidance on how to do so safely. That includes following public health advice on the use of public transport. Where there might be issues with local public transport capacity, we will work with institutions and with Transport Scotland to enable safe travel.

We have also been working closely with the other Administrations across the UK to enable students to return home safely wherever they live and study. As members will all be aware, the UK Government and Welsh Government have also issued their plans, which are largely similar, today.

We will continue to work across the UK in supporting students, but we will do so with an emphasis on what is set out in our strategic framework. We will shortly publish a question-and-answer guide and more detailed guidance on the Scottish Government website, which will set out more information on the steps that we are announcing today. I have no doubt that the majority of students will want to act responsibly and will follow the measures that are being set out.

I turn now to testing. We recognise the particular concerns associated with students moving from one household to another for the winter break. As an additional layer in our work to support a safer return home, we will therefore be offering testing to students who are returning home. To do that, we will make use of a new Covid testing technology, lateral flow devices, which can provide a result in half an hour. The tests work by detecting antigens from the virus that causes Covid-19. Although those tests are not as sensitive as the gold-standard polymerase chain reaction—PCR—tests that we use for our main testing programme, they are able to identify a substantial proportion of cases, and they appear to be more sensitive when detecting people with the highest viral load: potentially, those who could be most infectious. In agreeing to set these measures in motion, we have quickly taken advantage of the latest advances in technology and capacity.

We intend to offer testing on a voluntary basis to all students who are returning home, based on local and logistical circumstances. As previously indicated, that will involve between 60,000 and 80,000 students but, to be clear, precise numbers will obviously depend on how many choose to go home and whether they choose to take up the offer of a test.

We are currently planning on the basis that two tests will be necessary, five days apart, with PCR confirmation for positives where appropriate, but that position may change as public health professionals and clinicians take account of the new evidence that is coming forward from England, where a number of pilot studies have been undertaken.

What does that mean for our students? It is important to be clear about what the tests can and cannot do. We will be using them to test students to try and find Covid cases. The students concerned will be asked to isolate so that they do not transmit the disease further, and their close contacts will be asked to isolate so that they, too, do not transmit the disease if they have become infected. The tests provide a point-in-time assessment of whether a person has Covid, so they are useful for finding cases, but they cannot tell us with certainty that someone is Covid-free, and they cannot tell us whether a person is incubating the disease. We are asking students in Scotland to get tested and to isolate if they are positive or if they are a close contact, so as to help us reduce transmission. That means that it will be vital for students to continue to follow all the other measures in place to reduce transmission risks, even if they test negative.

Guidance for students on what test results mean and on the support that is available to them will be provided. The testing will be delivered through partnership with Scottish universities and collaborating with the wider UK Government testing programme. We are all aware of the challenges surrounding establishing the system in such a short timescale, but we are absolutely committed to working in partnership to deliver it for our students.

Supporting students to return home is only part of the equation. What happens in semester 2 is the other key part. While colleges and universities have supported students in their learning to date, it has been far from a normal experience. That was not helped by the outbreaks of Covid-19 within student accommodation at the start of term. During that period, through extensive work with universities, the National Union of Students and other partners, processes were put in place to support student wellbeing. Work was also undertaken to communicate key messages, including explanations of how the current restrictions on social gatherings apply to students living away from home.

Infection rates in student accommodation have now substantially reduced, with all known positive cases among university students since the start of term estimated to be around 1.5 per cent. Data from 5 November shows that new cases among students identified each day by universities, based on an average from the previous seven days, accounted for approximately 2 per cent of the national total over the same period.

While we no longer have the same level of infections among students as we did at the start of term, we must of course learn from that experience. There are many challenges in determining the approach to balancing the four harms so as to support students’ education in semester 2. That is set within the context of considerable uncertainty around virus levels at that point and consideration of the strategic framework that will be in place nationally. We are reflecting on that as well as on the lessons from semester 1 as we further consider our next steps with the universities, the unions, the NUS and public health experts.

It is clear that the return after the new year will not be normal, and we will work with the sector to offer as much clarity for students and staff as we can in the coming weeks.

Covid-19 is a challenge for all of us—students included. We have all worked hard to support students in gaining an education this term and we have learned and adapted as we have progressed, as everyone else has.

I thank students for all their efforts and ask them to please keep doing all that they can to keep themselves and others safe, especially if they are making plans to go home.

Finally, I reiterate my thanks to all the staff and students the length and breadth of Scotland. I know that it has been tough, but together we will get through this.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The minister will now take questions on the issues that were raised in his statement.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

I thank the minister for advance sight of his statement and add my thanks to our further and higher education staff, who are trying to deliver as near to normal an experience as they can in this difficult year.

I welcome the positive intention to get students back home for Christmas. The Conservatives have been calling for mass asymptomatic testing of students for many months now, so I am pleased that such testing forms an intrinsic part of the plans that were announced today. In reality, however, to administer 160,000 tests in a few short weeks is ambitious and that ambition must translate into reality, so let me ask specific questions.

Can the minister guarantee that every student who wants a test will be able to access one, irrespective of their circumstance? Who will provide the tests and physically administer them, and who will provide the results? Can the minister guarantee that every student who gets the two tests will have them early enough so that they still have time to complete 14 days of isolation before Christmas—thus allowing them to get home if necessary—should they test positive?

As things stand, we are offering students a chance to go home with no idea if, or when, they will crucially be able to return to college and university—a goal towards which we must all strive. To avoid a repeat of what happened this summer, when will clear plans and guidance for semester 2 be announced?

Richard Lochhead

I thank Jamie Greene for his questions and the constructive way in which he asked them. Clearly, our absolute objective is to ensure that students can return home for Christmas, so the timetable will have to reflect that. We ask of universities that the tests will clearly have to be carried out in time to allow that to happen, should any student need to self-isolate for 14 days.

I can only assure Jamie Greene that, just as the UK Government south of the border, the Welsh Assembly Government and others will do, we will bust a gut to make that happen. We do not know the exact scale of the challenge because we do not know how many students want to go home and how many will voluntarily seek a test. The universities have assured us that they are up for delivering the tests, and we will work as closely as we can with them.

The universities will have the prime responsibility, which they have taken on, for delivering the tests. The UK Government contractors and the Scottish Government public health teams will work closely with them. A programme board is being set up at the moment, which will take forward those plans. We are working closely with the other home nations, because we all face similar situations, and I am confident that we will do all that we possibly can to get through this challenge and allow our students to return home safely.

As for semester 2, I said in my opening remarks that, as we stand here in early November, we cannot quite predict what the situation will be in January. However, we are determined to give students as much clarity as we can, and to ensure that our universities do the same, so that students know what to expect when they come back in the new year.

Again, I say that the situation will not be normal. We will do what is right for public health reasons, which will be first and foremost in our minds and, although we will also take into account other harms, we will have to consider where the virus is at that time.

Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

I thank the minister for early sight of his statement. We have been asking for some time for a plan for students to be able to return safely home at Christmas, so the statement is welcome. Indeed, the return of students to universities in September was one of the worst-handled episodes in this pandemic, with soaring infection rates and hundreds of students who faced self-isolation in difficult circumstances.

It is good that we have a plan and good that it is a four-nation plan, given the movement across the United Kingdom. The lack of detail in the statement that the minister provided today is rather worrying. When will testing actually begin? Who will carry the cost of the tests? Does the minister recommend that all students should be tested before they return home? In England, the staggered period of home returns is identified as a fixed window from 3 to 9 December—what is it here?

Finally, what additional support will be provided through universities, and directly, to individual students who cannot return home over Christmas because they have been asked to self-isolate, having tested positive?

Richard Lochhead

Iain Gray asked a number of questions, and I will do my best to answer them.

On cost, we are part of a UK programme, and the UK Treasury will hopefully be covering the cost. We are in discussions about that, and hope to have clarity in due course.

I strongly recommend that all students who are considering going home for Christmas come forward voluntarily and take advantage of the asymptomatic testing that will be made available to them. That is the best way to minimise the risk of transmission of the virus in Scotland and elsewhere, which is the responsible thing to do. On the radio today I heard some students who had a very responsible attitude to the testing, could see the clear benefits of it and welcomed that step forward.

Across the whole of the UK, we are all in the same boat. We are talking about new technology that is being piloted, and the validation processes are being taken forward. We are at the stage at which we can use asymptomatic testing in our universities as part of a UK-wide pilot. That is why we face the challenge—it is a challenge that we are up for—of getting the programme in place to allow our students to go home safely.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I would like succinct questions and answers, please, as we are running a little behind time.

Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

The minister rightly recognised that, for some care-experienced students, student accommodation is their home. In addition, many international and other students may decide not to travel home over Christmas for a variety of reasons. How will the Scottish Government ensure that further and higher education institutions take steps to protect those students’ welfare and wellbeing over the winter break?

Richard Lochhead

Clare Adamson is absolutely correct. This year, universities are expecting more students to stay on campus and not go home for Christmas than in previous years, largely for the reasons that Clare Adamson referred to in relation to international students, such as the challenges with travelling overseas.

As I said, for care-experienced students, university is home. That is why one of the five measures to which I referred earlier is specifically about ensuring that universities work with us to deliver welfare support and care, and an enjoyable Christmas and festive season, on our university campuses. We are speaking to the universities about that, and they say that they are putting extra measures in place. It has been a tough year for everyone, and hopefully those extra measures will make a difference for students who find themselves unable, or who choose not, to go home.

Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

As my colleague Jamie Greene said, we are pleased that the minister now recognises the potential value of testing asymptomatic students, which is something that we called for, and which the minister rejected, ahead of the return of students to universities and the subsequent outbreaks.

Does the minister now accept that he was wrong to ignore the call for asymptomatic testing to be introduced at an earlier stage? How will the new testing regime work with NHS Scotland’s test and protect app, and what is the estimated number of Scottish students who have the app operating on their phones?

Richard Lochhead

The clinical governance will be worked up in the coming days in conjunction with colleagues across the home nations. We are learning from the pilots that took place down south.

I will make two points. First, testing is just one part of the toolbox. We cannot just rely on testing, and that is an important message to send out. It is not a panacea, and it is not a cure that will make it possible for everyone to stay safe and not get infected with coronavirus. It is an important part of a package of measures, and the national advice that applies to everyone in Scotland, including students, is absolutely fundamental in keeping us safe. That is a strong message that we will convey to the student population in Scotland. Testing has a role to play, but the other measures that we need to adopt are crucial to keeping us safe.

With regard to test and protect, the clinical governance that is being worked up this week will look at the relationship between test and protect and the new asymptomatic testing. The new test—it is relatively new—is advanced and gives a result within half an hour, so we are now in a position to pilot asymptomatic testing. We were not in that position before.

Sandra White (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

I am pleased that we have clarity with regard to students going home at Christmas, but I want to look a wee bit further ahead. What safeguards will be in place to ensure that we do not have a repeat of the rise in numbers of Covid-19 cases in the student population when students return to their campuses?

Richard Lochhead

We have to learn lessons from the start of the new term in September and October, when freshers arrived at university and there were outbreaks of Covid in university halls of residence. For the students who were affected, that caused a lot of distress and soured their experience of their first few weeks at university.

As members heard in the statistics that I provided earlier, the situation has dramatically improved. For students, going back to university or college after new year is quite different from attending freshers week during their first experience of university in September, so there will be a different set of circumstances.

However, we will not be complacent, and the rise in the number of cases nationally since September has to be taken into account in how we approach the new year. We will continue to discuss that with student representatives and the institutions, in order that we can provide as much clarity as possible in good time for students to know what to expect after the new year.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

The availability of testing of students this side of Christmas is welcome. Will the minister take the opportunity to commit to its on-going availability after Christmas and into the second term?

Richard Lochhead

I am sure that we will learn a lot from asymptomatic testing in our universities and colleges at the end of this term. We will continue to discuss the possibility of on-going asymptomatic testing, and to take advice from our clinical advisers and the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport, who has just arrived in the chamber. Testing is advancing all the time, so we will continue to keep Parliament abreast of any future use of asymptomatic testing.

Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green)

The Green Party’s support for asymptomatic testing is well known. I welcome today’s announcement, but I am concerned about the lack of any plan for testing students before and as they return to university in January. After two weeks of being scattered around the country, their return to halls could result in exactly the same kind of outbreaks as there were two months ago. When will the minister advise Parliament about the testing arrangements that will be applied at the end of the Christmas break—similar to those that he outlined for the start of the break—and when will he explain how testing will continue?

Richard Lochhead

I repeat the point that asymptomatic testing—indeed, any testing—is not a panacea. It plays an important role, but it is important that students and the rest of us recognise that it is one of a series of measures that must be adopted in order for people to keep themselves and others safe.

We are now looking at the new possibilities for asymptomatic testing, especially in universities and for the return of students after the new year. We are discussing that with clinical colleagues and the other Administrations in the UK, and we will do our best to keep Parliament updated. We are in early November, in the middle of a global pandemic, and we are speaking about the January term, so it is not possible to predict exactly what the best solution will be.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

It is a shame that the Government has been dragged into this position; for months, political parties across the chamber have been asking for testing to happen. If it had happened earlier, universities around the country might not have been in the situation that they were in earlier in the term.

I hope that the minister now recognises that we should not only test before Christmas; we need to test after Christmas, as well. We need that commitment today, so that the minister is not dragged to the chamber again to make it happen. We cannot afford students being treated in the way that they were treated earlier this year. Will the minister commit to that?

Richard Lochhead

I know that it is exceedingly unlikely, but should Willie Rennie ever find himself in government, he will find that he has to listen to the advice of clinical advisers. We must listen to scientific and clinical advice. We now have effective asymptomatic tests, which is why the UK Government, the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government and, perhaps, other Governments are adopting asymptomatic testing—the test that we will use, in particular, which has been piloted.

Our message to students is that testing plays a role, but is not a panacea or the solution to keeping ourselves safe: we have to follow the advice, as well. Science and technologies are advancing all the time and it is important that we take advantage of that.

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

The minister has said that the testing programme is a UK Government programme. Will he confirm whether the Treasury has agreed to meet the costs?

Richard Lochhead

My understanding is that that is being considered by the Treasury. Quite clearly, it is a UK programme that is working with our universities and the Scottish Government to deliver asymptomatic testing, with an allocation to Scotland of testing kits. It would therefore be really helpful were the UK Treasury to respond positively—soon—and confirm that it will step in and cover the costs.

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I ask for complete clarity from the minister about his intentions for the testing that will follow beyond the Christmas break for returning students, many of whom are from other countries. What exactly are the intentions on testing when students return from abroad?

Richard Lochhead

As I have said, we are of course looking at testing as part of the return of students to our institutions after the new year. However, at the moment, we are concentrating on getting our students home safely for Christmas this term. I say to Liz Smith that the position is similar across the UK, because of the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

However, we will give as much clarity and notice as we can give, and we will ask universities to give as much clarity as possible to students about what to expect next term. We are working on that at the moment.

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

Many students will be basing their decision on whether to return home to stay with family this Christmas on a variety of factors, including financial ones. Will the minister ensure that student hardship funds are adequate, that funds are suitably prioritised for those who are most in need, and that students are aware that they can, in some circumstances, apply for the Scottish welfare fund?

Richard Lochhead

Yes. For many students, in particular those who have not been able to work due to the impact of Covid on the economy, it has been a tough time financially. That is why the hardship funds, including the additional hardship funds that we introduced a few months ago, have been so valuable.

The £11 million that we brought forward for the higher education sector is largely available, although I am waiting for an up-to-date report on how much of it has been used. We are also paying close attention to the call on the student hardship funds in further education and our colleges. It is a very important issue, so I assure Bob Doris that we are keeping a close eye on it.

Johann Lamont (Glasgow) (Lab)

I urge the minister to give detailed timescales, because young people and their families will be expecting that, and not that he will simply look at timescales at some point in the future.

Will the minister also clarify the advice on travel? If a student is travelling from a level 3 area such as Glasgow to a level 1 area such as Stornoway, is the general travel advice suspended for them? In addition, if students are advised that they cannot travel until after a particular date, what confidence can he give them that, if they wait, they will not be caught out if the levels that are assigned for particular areas, or the general travel advice, change?

Richard Lochhead

There are exceptions to the current travel guidance, for which students would qualify in getting to their education. However, our guidance is, of course, being updated to take into account the need for students to be able to return home for Christmas. That is the purpose of my announcement, and of the announcements across the rest of the UK.

On future arrangements, we will give as much notice as we can—albeit that we face the uncertainty of being in the middle of a global pandemic, and that it is not easy in November to give advice on what the situation will be in January. I assure Johann Lamont that we are conscious of the need to let families and students know what might be around the corner in respect of arrangements for students to return to their institutions.

Gail Ross (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP)

How ready are colleges and universities to provide learning online for students who cannot, or do not want to, return to halls or shared accommodation after the Christmas break?

Richard Lochhead

There has been a huge shift to online learning and teaching in our colleges and universities. Clearly, however, that is not practicable for some courses, hence the case for keeping some face-to-face teaching over the past few months. However, some universities in particular have shifted a huge amount of their teaching online. When it comes to the plan for the safe return home of students at Christmas, the end of face-to-face teaching is anticipated in order to give enough time for students to travel home, should they have to self-isolate for 14 days before Christmas.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That concludes questions on the statement. I thank members and the minister for enabling all the questions to be answered in the time allowed.