STUDENTS will be tested for Covid-19 before returning home for the Christmas break and will be asked to “voluntarily reduce their social mixing” for two weeks.

Scotland’s Universities Minister Richard Lochhead confirmed that asymptomatic students will be tested before returning to family homes over the festive period and pointed to “staggered and early departure” for learners to avoid “a great surge of movement”.

Mr Lochhead told MSPs that of the 240,000 students at Scottish universities, it is estimated that between 60,000 and 80,000 may wish to return home for Christmas.

Universities will be asked to “ensure that in-person teaching and assessment ends early enough to allow students time to get home at the end of term”.

He added: “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 – this means going out only for essential reasons and exercise.

“This is the advice for all, but it is most vital to those students leaving from those areas where they are designated at higher levels of the strategic framework and those who are returning to households with vulnerable family members.”

Mr Lochhead said that early access to testing for students with symptoms “has already proved to be effective in controlling outbreaks”.

He added: “Now we will be including Scottish students in a UK-wide initiative to test some asymptomatic students prior to the end of term.”

The minister said the Scottish Govenrment “will offer testing to students who are returning home” - making use of “a new Covid testing technology, lateral flow devices, which can provide a result in half an hour”.

Mr Lochhead said: “These tests will work by detecting antigens from the virus that causes Covid-19.

“Although these tests are not as sensitive as the gold-standard PCR tests we use for our main testing programme, they are able to identify a substantial proportion of cases, and appear to be more sensitive when detecting people with the highest viral load, so potentially those who could be most infectious.

“We intend to offer testing on a voluntary basis to all students who are returning home, based on local and logistical circumstances.”

He added: “That is, as previously indicted, 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 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, but that position may change as public health professionals and clinicians take into account of any new evidence from the pilots in England which is being produced.”

Conservative education spokesperson, Jamie Greene, welcomed the policy but warned that “160,000 tests is ambitious” and called on Mr Lochhead to give more information about turnaround times for those being tested – and whether they will have enough time to isolate, if necessary, before returning home.

Mr Lochhead stressed the Scottish Government is “going to bust a gut to make this happen”.

Labour education spokesperson, Iain Gray said the return of students in the summer was one of the “worst handled episodes in this pandemic”.

He added: “It is very good that we have a plan and it is good that it is a four-nation plan, given movement across the United Kingdom.

“What is rather worrying is the lack of detail provided. Can the minister tell us when the testing will actually begin, who will carry the cost of the test and whether he is recommending that all students should be tested before returning home?”

Mr Lochhead said: “The UK Treasury hopefully will be covering the cost but we’re in discussions about that and hopefully we will get clarity in due course.

“Absolutely, I recommend very strongly that all students that are considering going home for Christmas to voluntarily come forward and take advantage of asymptomatic testing that will be made available to them.”

Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, welcomed the announcement.

He said: “We agree that it’s important that students living away from their families have the chance to reconnect at Christmas and this needs to be carefully managed to reduce risk.

“We welcome the measures announced by the Scottish Government, especially developments which have made asymptomatic testing an option for the student community ahead of the winter break. This will help students to make judgements based on their personal and family circumstances. Urgent work now begins to get the testing strategy in place in the next few weeks.”

He added: “The introduction of testing, though welcome, is just one component part of the careful management of student migration. It is not a fix-all and universities will continue to stress the importance of continued high levels of adherence to FACTS.

"We will continue to work with students’ associations to reinforce messages about responsible behaviour and looking out for each other’s welfare – challenges that the vast majority of the student population have stepped up to magnificently.

“The mobile student population, those who intend to change households for the winter break, are one subset of total numbers. Scotland has high numbers of commuter students, who are already home.

“Significant numbers of students are expected to stay in their university accommodation for a variety of reasons, including many international students and some students for whom university is their home. Universities are putting in extra efforts to ensure that students remaining on campus over Christmas and New Year are looked after.”