Scotland's university campuses face the threat of a fresh wave of coronavirus infections because planned arrangements for students' post-Christmas return do not reflect variation in start of term dates, a union has warned.

Concerns at the University and College Union (UCU) come after Education Secretary John Swinney announced earlier this week that students would go back to their institutions on a staggered basis.

Under guidance aimed at containing the spread of Covid-19, this is due to begin from the week commencing January 4.

Mr Swinney told the Scottish Parliament: “At the start of the new term, universities’ return will be staggered over at least six weeks.

“With some limited exceptions, undergraduate students will re-start their studies at home at the normal beginning of term and should only return to campus and their term-time accommodation when asked to do so by their university.” 

He added: “As with our guidance for the end of term, we are also asking students to voluntarily restrict their social interaction for two weeks before they return to university and for two weeks following their return.”

But UCU leaders said the fact most universities have start of term dates which fall later than January 4 would make it likely that student movements following the Christmas holiday become concentrated within a much shorter period of time.

This, in turn, will increase the risk of coronavirus transmission.

Dr Carlo Morelli, the UCU Scotland president, said: “We welcome the announcement that the return of students to campuses after Christmas will be done on a staggered basis over six weeks. 

"That said, it is nonsensical that the guidance has all universities following the same timetable. 

"Universities across the country have different start dates for semester two and the six week timetable should only begin for each institution when their term starts rather than there being an arbitrary date of 4 January for all.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “The six week staggered return is based on clinical advice and the uncertainty of virus levels in January, and is intended to considerably reduce the numbers of students returning to university in any one week.”