Covid Scotland: NUS 'deeply concerned' over students heading to campus without vaccine protection
Concerns around thousands of potentially unvaccinated or single-jabbed students arriving at Scotland’s universities in September have been raised by the National Union of Scotland.
Matt Crilly, the NUS Scotland president, said the union was “deeply concerned” about the large numbers of students who are under 18 and are therefore ineligible for a vaccine and the vast majority who will likely have only received one dose.
Many university terms will start after the deadline of September 12 set by Nicola Sturgeon for all adults to have received both doses of a Covid-19 vaccine, with Edinburgh University beginning term on September 14 and Glasgow University beginning teaching on September 20.
However, many students will arrive several weeks prior to this, with new students expected to be able to enjoy a more relaxed freshers week than in 2020, usually the week prior to the beginning of teaching.
Adults are also only considered fully protected two weeks after their second dose, which could be as late as September 26.
Matt Crilly, NUS Scotland president said: "The health and safety of students and staff is of central importance and that is why NUS Scotland have been calling for the acceleration of vaccines amongst the student population as a priority, giving them as much protection as possible before the return to campus.
"We are deeply concerned that a large cohort of students are under 18 years old and not eligible for a vaccine, while most students won’t have full protection from their second dose.”
The likelihood of all adults having received two doses by September 12 is also diminishing, with just 67.8 per cent of those aged between 18 and 29 having received a first dose as of July 15.
The deadline for all adults to have been given a jag is July 18.
The concerns come as the Scottish Government published its guidance for universities ahead of a post-level zero return to campuses.
Institutions will be expected to restrict the number of students in popular lectures and to “operate in a protective way” in regards to those unvaccinated or lacking full protection from Covid-19 in university-run student accommodation.
Last year, the second wave of Covid-19 began in student halls as students took advantage of relaxed socialisation rules and poor infection prevention standards.
Alongside this, guidance also states international students will be expected to quarantine as detailed by the ‘traffic light’ travel restrictions system, with universities potentially able to host arriving international students from red list countries.
Reacting, Mr Crilly called on any quarantine fee to be waived for international students.
He said: “The new term is fast approaching and we still don't have clarity on how international students will be supported to self-isolate upon arrival. We need a serious plan that centres student safety and wellbeing.
"We also continue to call for the proposed quarantine fee to be waived for international students.”
The concerns were echoed by Michael Marra, Scottish Labour’s education spokesperson, who said students needed more than “woolly words of guidance” to feel safe arriving on campus.
Mr Marra called for full vaccinations ahead of the start of the semester.
He said: “Last year students were treated as an afterthought, with disastrous consequences, but the SNP’s light-touch approach suggests we’re on track to make the same mistakes all over again.
“From vaccination to wellbeing to international students, all the key questions remain unanswered and we are running out of time to answer them.”
A spokesperson for Universities Scotland said the guidance “reflects intensive engagement” between institutions, the government and student representatives, and echoed calls for an adequate supply of hotel quarantine options for international students.
The spokesperson said: “We’re expecting a ‘new normal’ for the new academic year. For instance we’re not envisaging the immediate resumption of large lectures.
"However, we look forward to providing the seminars and tutorials, laboratory experience and work experience that are so important to students’ progression.
“Work with the Scottish Government continues on how best to provide a supportive quarantine for international students as they arrive.
"We have been exploring whether some of this demand can be met by institutions themselves, so the connection with the institution starts immediately and takes full account of student wellbeing, but this could only ever be part of the solution.”
Scottish higher and further education minister Jamie Hepburn said: “Since the start of the pandemic universities have received £150 million of additional Scottish Government support directly related to Covid-19. We are hopeful the student experience in the autumn will look more normal, but there will still need to be measures in place to help prevent transmission. We will continue to work closely with the sector as it intensifies planning for the academic year ahead.
“We have arranged for testing to be available to students and staff on university campuses. International students arriving from red-list countries must enter managed quarantine in a hotel for ten days at their own expense while those from amber-list countries must isolate in their place of residence for ten days.
"We have been exploring with universities how student accommodation could be used in place of hotels for managed isolation.
“We have agreed with health boards and higher and further education institutions to appoint a single points of contacts in universities and colleges that will support with the delivery of the vaccination to students across Scotland. We are currently awaiting advice from the JCVI on vaccination of under-18s.”