THE SCOTTISH Government has been told to delay the return of university students in line with the decision to close schools until the beginning of February.

On Monday, Nicola Sturgeon put mainland Scotland into a new lockdown in an attempt to try and suppress the spread of the new more transmissible strain of Covid-19.

The First Minister also announced that all schools and nurseries will remain closed until at least February 1, although schooling will be made available for children of key workers and those who are vulnerable.

But the Scottish Liberal Democrats have now called for university campuses to remain close for the same period of time.

READ MORE: Coronavirus Scotland: Schools to remain shut until February

When students returned to campuses at the start of term in the summer, hundreds were forced to self-isolate in halls of residence after contracting the virus.

Plans were already in place for a staggered return for university students, who were offered Covid-19 tests when they left campus to return home for Christmas last year.

Guidance is expected to be published by the end of the week which could include delays to the resumption of in-person teaching for some courses until February - although face-to-face lessons for some practical courses could resume sooner.

But Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie now wants ministers to draw up a blueprint for how the return of students can be safely managed.

HeraldScotland: Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie RennieScottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie

He said: “Students and universities have been left in the dark once again about the start of the new term. They should be advised without delay that in person teaching won’t start until after February.

"Before students returned to universities in the autumn, I warned that this was going to be the biggest movement of people since the pandemic began and called for testing to be put in place to protect students and the communities in which they live. Instead, the Scottish Government’s indecision and lack of preparation allowed the virus to be seeded across Scotland.”

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon puts Scotland back into ‘stay at home’ lockdown

Mr Rennie added: "Students need clarity about what their studies will look like for the forthcoming year. They need to know if there will be in person teaching and how it will be phased in.

"Many students are stuck paying for student accommodation or private housing far from home. The government will need to ensure that these students are supported with a proper rent rebate. Many of them have made huge sacrifices to keep others safe, they should not be punished financially for doing so.

READ MORE: SNP doesn't know if all students will return after Christmas

"Our colleges and universities need to have access to routine asymptomatic testing to start in universities to reach people who show no symptoms but who carry the virus.

"There is also more to be done to help unwell students to get additional support from universities and local health professionals and mental health support services. We need to see the Universities Minister set out detailed plans this week to ensure that students are not left hung out to dry."

Speaking in Holyrood on Monday, Ms Sturgeon said the Scottish Government “already had plans in place for the staggered return of universities and colleges”.

She added: “We will be considering this week whether any further change to that plan is necessary.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We are looking urgently this week, working with universities, unions and student representatives, as to whether any further changes are required to the planned staggered return for university students.

“As set out in existing guidance, the message to students remains that they should not return to their term-time accommodation until in-person teaching resumes, as advised by their institution.”

A Universities Scotland spokesperson said: “We are seeking urgent clarity from Scottish Government about what changes they plan to the staggered resumption of in-person teaching, in the light of the changed prevalence of the virus in society.

"We want to give students as much certainty as possible and any student who is currently unsure about what to do should contact their university for their latest guidance.”