NICOLA Sturgeon has been accused of failing to prepare for a wholly predictable surge in Covid cases associated with the return of students to university.

With more than 1,000 students self-isolating in halls across Scotland, the First Minister came under sustained fire at Holyrood over the Government’s readiness for the start of the academic year.

It came as Ms Sturgeon said another 465 people had tested positive for coronavirus overnight, including 219 within the NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde area, some of whom were students. 

The First Minister also announced two more deaths from the infection in the last 24 hours.

She said the R number, showing the rate of transmission, was above the critical level of 1, and could be as high as 1.6 in Scotland, indicating rapid spread.

She said further measures on containing the virus on university campuses, largely focused on prevention, would be announced later today.

She said she understood the problems students faced, and revealed her nephew had just started at the University of Edinburgh where he was in halls. 

At the University of Glasgow, 124 students have tested positive and more than 600 are self-isolating across residences.

In Dundee, 500 Abertay University students were asked to self-isolate this week in student accommodation where three people have tested positive.

And at the University of Aberdeen, 72 residents in Wavell House have been asked to self-isolate after a number of students tested positive.

Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson said routine testing at university campuses may be needed, with more contact tracers hired and a rapid roll-out of walk-in testing centres.

Only two of a planned 22 testing centres have opened so far, with only half are predicated to be open by the end of next month.

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard said there had been a “failure to anticipate, failure to plan, and above all a failure to test”, asking the FM: “Why were you not better prepared?” 

He also raised the possibility of students have to stay in halls over Christmas in case their return home spread the virus to their families.

He said: “Students were told that they could return to universities and the communal living that goes with that, safely. And we’ve all been told that test and protect was working well.  

“But now students are suffering the consequences of your government’s failure. 

“Students, some as young as 17 and away from home for the first time, are living without established support networks.  

“We know that this in itself can have an impact on young people’s mental health. On top of this, some are self-isolating in cramped accommodation. And many more will be anxious that they won’t be allowed to go home for Christmas.” 

At FMQs, he asked Ms Sturgeon what she was doing “to avoid either students being confined in accommodation, away from families over Christmas, or students returning home with the fear and the very real risk that they’re spreading Covid-19 to their friends and families back home”. 

Ms Sturgeon accused him of needlessly heightening people’s anxiety.

The UK’s Government Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies recently discussed the risk of outbreaks spilling over from higher education institutions being greater towards the end of term when students returned home, coinciding with Christmas and New Year.

It warned this could pose a risk to families and local communities and said the situation would require "national oversight, monitoring and decision-making".

UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock this morning refused to rule out keeping students on campus at Christmas.

Asked on Times Radio whether students would be encouraged to stay at university over Christmas, he said: "We have said that students should stay at university until Christmas... “We don't rule out the suggestion you just made but I don't want to have to say that. 

“It is some time off. I very much hope that we won't have to say that, but as I say I don't rule it out. The important thing is in the short-term, students once they've gone to university should stay at university so as not to spread the disease."

Scotland's national clinical director Professor Jason Leitch said he was "very concerned" at the situation at universities.

He told BBC Breakfast: "I am concerned, very concerned, about higher and further education, I always have been. I was concerned when it came back and I'm concerned now.

"Predictably, we have cases. Every country in the world that has brought universities back has got cases. We need to be very, very careful. 

“Even though most of those cases will not get serious illness, some of them will and some of them will potentially spread it to the community."

Ms Davidson said: “Nobody wants to see restrictions placed on students, however, a large number of the new positive Covid cases across Scotland are directly linked to universities.

“There is still time to get on top of these outbreaks before they spread more widely.

“Routine testing at university campuses and an accelerated rollout of walk-in testing centres would help us to suppress the virus at the earliest stage, before it has a chance to spread widely to communities.

“But we can’t wait over a month to get these centres up and running - we need them now. The Scottish Government need to boost capacity while these outbreaks can still be managed.”

Scottish Green MSP Patrick Harvie said the government should have been better prepared.

He likened student halls to cruise ships at the start of the pandemic, bringing people together from around the world into densely populated conditions that were perfect for Covid spread. 

He said: “Just weeks into term and we’ve already seen Covid outbreaks in universities in Edinburgh, St Andrews, Dundee, Aberdeen, and now Glasgow. 

“Over a thousand students in halls are in self-isolation, and many of these will be first year students away from home for the first time.

“My heart goes out to all of them. They need their universities and the Scottish Government to work urgently to provide the support that they need.

“There is no doubt that this situation is playing a significant role in relighting the fires of the pandemic here in Scotland.

“And most frustrating is how avoidable it was. Just like the cruise ships at the beginning of the pandemic, we have brought people from far and wide together into densely populated accommodation, creating the perfect conditions for the spread of this virus.

“Incredibly the basic precaution of having testing easily accessible to these young people has not even been in place in most of our university towns. 

“As walk-through test centres finally open up over the coming days, the Government must ensure that they can meet the huge increase in demand which these outbreaks will generate.”