UNIVERSITY students could be set for a “staggered” return to campus after the Christmas holidays to avoid a repeat of the start of term fiasco that led to hundreds of learners testing positive for the virus.

Deputy First Minister John Swinney has indicated that a staggered return is being investigated by the Scottish Government, which has insisted it intends to prioritise students being able to return home for Christmas.

Mr Swinney, who is also the Education Secretary, also suggested that routine testing could play a role in ensuring a safe return to campuses in January after the policy was ruled out in September when students initially returned to halls.

The beginning of the academic year saw thousands of students enter halls of residence before hundreds of them were forced to isolate due to a spike in Covid-19 cases.

The Scottish Conservatives said the previous debacle when students originally returned means the Scottish Government “cannot afford to get it wrong again”, warning that trust must be rebuilt.

Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie has welcomed the exploration of asymptomatic testing but has warned that testing capacity will need to be set out to avoid any major issues.

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Scotland’s contact tracing system has come under fire after self-isolation notices were issued to parents of Bearsden Primary pupils almost two weeks late – with one parent labelling it “an utter disgrace”.

Mr Swinney’s remarks came as the Scottish Government confirmed yesterday that 1,303 people had tested positive in the previous 24-hour period, making up 19 per cent of those newly tested.

One person had died from the virus in the same time period.

Mr Swinney said that the Scottish Government is “learning lessons” from the return of students which will impact measures in place after the Christmas break.

Nicola Sturgeon’s second in command insisted it was a “priority” that students are able to go home for Christmas and he was working with other UK nations to ensure that does not result in a spike in Covid-19 cases.

Addressing the return of students, he told the BBC’s Politics Scotland programme: “Some of the points that we’re looking at are around staggered returns of students so that they don’t all come back in one go, that we look at arrangements for how testing can be part of the architecture of how we handle that return.

“What we expect of students when they are returning home and when they’re coming back into universities and how they will spend their time, how their learning will be undertaken – these are all issues that are being explored.”

Mr Swinney added that a system of mass testing, bolstered by a staggered return of students ensuring the system does not become overwhelmed, was being discussed as an option.

He said: “These are some of the options that are being looked at and obviously… the practicalities of that are changed and eased if the return of students is staggered over a longer period.”

Mr Swinney added: “We’re working with institutions because they have to be partners with us in how the learning is undertaken over that period to make sure that we avoid any situation where there is too much strain either on the testing system or there is too much strain on the possibility of the circulation of the virus when students return or, for that matter, when they return to their homes in the first place.”

Scottish Conservative education spokesman, Jamie Greene, has warned there cannot be a repeat of the “chaotic and ill-thought out” strategy at the start of term.

He added: “It seems astonishing that they haven’t come up measures already which will allow students to safely travel to and from their families over Christmas.

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“Having lost the trust of Scotland’s student population, Mr Swinney simply cannot afford to get it wrong again.

“The Scottish Government must continue to work as closely as possible with the UK Government to ramp up student testing and outbreak management, with help given to those who need it most.”

Labour’s education spokesperson, Iain Gray, added: “Students have been mucked around enough by the SNP, they were told it was safe to go to university and then thousands were left to isolate and blamed for spreading the virus.

“Testing should have been a key part of any plan to get students back on campuses from the start so at the very least clarity is required now on how any testing strategy will work.”

The Scottish Lib Dems and Scottish Greens have been pressing the Scottish Government to use asymptomatic testing to keep students safe.

Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie said: “I am so pleased that the Scottish Government are, at last, looking at mass asymptomatic testing for students. Students were let down at the start of the last term with the botched return, virus outbreaks and local lockdowns, the Scottish Government cannot afford to do that again.

“With asymptomatic testing we can hunt down and drive out the virus from campuses.

“Students will inevitably want to go home for Christmas and their families want to have them. This is going to be a massive movement of people. The government must be prepared.”

He added: “If the Government intends to follow a staggered approach to students returning home they must set out a timetable clearly and early. This needs to be a uniform, considered operation to keep students and our communities safe.

“The Education Secretary says he wants to avoid straining the testing system so he must increase the capacity at pace now.”