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Covid in Scottish universities: Nicola Sturgeon says students not to blame

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media captionCovid in Scotland: FM says students aren't to blame for spread of virus

Scotland's first minister has insisted that students are not to blame for recent outbreaks at the country's universities.

Some students have claimed that they are being "singled out" after they were told not to visit pubs or restaurants over the weekend.

Ms Sturgeon told them that the outbreaks are "not your fault".

But she backed universities taking disciplinary action as a "last resort" against students who break the rules.

And she stressed that the virus was spreading across the whole country - not just on university campuses.

Opposition leaders have accused Ms Sturgeon of a "basic failure" to anticipate the problem and provide more testing on university campuses.

And some students have questioned why residences were allowed to open despite most learning being done online.

Speaking at her daily briefing, the first minister urged students to "do what is being asked of you" in terms of avoiding socialising outside of their residences and isolating if told to do so.

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She added: "I want to be clear as some of you feel blamed for spread of Covid right now. Nobody deserves to be facing this and this is not your fault.

"The sooner we get this under control sooner you will enjoy normal student life."

She said the recent surge in coronavirus cases in Scotland was "not just a university problem".

And she said she was "so sorry" that students' lives were being made so difficult.

'Home sickness'

The first minister said: "I really feel for you, but I feel especially for those of you starting university for the first time and, of course, living alone for the first time.

"This is an exciting time in your lives but I remember from my own experience that it is also a time of adjustment and it's also a time of home sickness as well.

"That is the case for students every year without Covid-19 but it is much more difficult given the circumstances you are all facing right now.

The first minister was later asked if she supported universities threatening to take tough action, including possible expulsion, against students who do not follow the new rules.

She replied: "Yes I do support universities taking disciplinary action as a last resort, and as a back stop.

"I would not expect universities - and I spoke to principals this morning and I know this is not their intention - to use discipline as a first resort.

"But as with the police, if you have people who are just flagrantly breaching rules then of course discipline and enforcement has to be part of the answer."

Ms Sturgeon was speaking as she announced that a further 558 new cases of the virus have been confirmed since yesterday - which was 9.7% of newly tested people and bring the total cases to 26,518.

Of those new cases, 255 were in Greater Glasgow and Clyde, 119 in Lothian and 61 in Lanarkshire - with the remaining 123 cases being spread across nine other health board areas.

The first minister confirmed 89 people were in hospital, an increase of four from Thursday with 11 in intensive care.

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image captionHundreds of students have tested positive for the virus, with many more people told to isolate

It comes after students across Scotland were told not to visit hospitality venues this weekend.

Universities Scotland said students who go to parties or socialise with anyone outside their accommodation potentially risk losing their place at university.

Police have also been told to monitor student behaviour outside campuses - but Ms Sturgeon said disciplinary action would be a "last resort".

And she said that everyone had their part to play in reducing the spread of the virus - not just students.

The tougher guidance that was announced on Thursday led to questions about whether students who are being asked to self isolate would be allowed to return to their family home.

Ms Sturgeon said there was a "difficult balancing act," because: "If you go home that may have an impact for your family who may also have to self isolate.

"We are looking at what might be possible there and we aim to issue further guidance over the weekend."

Ms Sturgeon said she had spoken personally to university principles about their obligation to student welfare, and said that 24-hour helplines, food delivery and mental health services were on standby.

'Just not right'

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross however said that the latest rules for students meant their education had been "disrupted like no other".

"In their first week, students are being threatened with expulsion and handed last-minute mixed messages, creating uncertainty about if they can go home or if they'll miss Christmas with their families," he said.

"Treating them this way is just not right. The Scottish government needs to clear up this confusion straight away. Decisions need to be communicated far more clearly and consistently."

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard said: "It is becoming clearer with every passing hour that Scotland's students are being punished for the SNP government's incompetence and lack of foresight."

And Scottish Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie said students had been given mixed messages on what they can and cannot do, adding: "It's clear the Scottish government wasn't ready for this, despite the warnings, and sowing confusion only makes it worse."

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