Lecturer union bosses are urging ministers to continue the free lateral flow testing system amid a surge in Covid cases.

Mary Senior, Scotland official for the University and College Union (UCU), said 50 deaths a day were being recorded north of the Border and noted that the infection rate was putting hospitals under “enormous pressure”.

Her concerns are set out in two separate letters – one to Alister Jack, the UK Government’s Secretary of State for Scotland, and another to Jamie Hepburn, Holyrood’s Further and Higher Education Minister.

In a missive to Mr Jack, Ms Senior says: "We wish to express to you the deepest concerns of our trade union that the UK Government is ending the free lateral flow device (LFD) testing system next month, and will no longer support the UK-wide Covid-19 testing regime." 

The letter continues: “It is reckless in the extreme to remove asymptomatic testing just at the point when we are encouraging more people to return to in-person work, learning and socialising.

“We are aware from Public Health Scotland presentations to stakeholders at the Advanced Learning Covid Recovery Group that 30 per cent of infections are asymptomatic. This is a huge number of infectious people who will not be identified once free LFD testing is removed.”

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Ms Senior’s letter warns that the cosmopolitan character of higher education campuses will increase the health risks. “Our university sector is world-leading because staff and students travel from all over the UK - and indeed the world - to learn, study and work in our universities," it states.

“However, this mixing means they are even more vulnerable to Covid outbreaks and the potential for new variants and strains of the virus to emerge. The end of a meaningful testing regime that provides testing, tracing and sequencing of variants is a very worrying prospect.

“You will no doubt be aware of a significant Covid outbreak in St Andrews University last month, which meant at one stage over one thousand students and staff were isolating.

“We want to keep students and staff as safe as possible so as they can participate in learning, teaching, research and knowledge exchange. Covid-19 protections, including asymptomatic testing and the test and protect regime, are fundamental to this.”

HeraldScotland: Mary Senior is the UCU's Scotland official.Mary Senior is the UCU's Scotland official.

She adds: “We are urging you to use your influence in Cabinet to revisit the decision to end free asymptomatic testing and to ensure we have a UK-wide test and protect system which keeps students, staff and their dependents safe.”

The concerns are echoed in Ms Senior’s letter to Mr Hepburn, which states: “We are deeply alarmed at the ending of the free lateral flow device testing system from next month, and we appreciate that this system has been effective because it has been UK-wide.

“We have written to the Scottish Secretary to raise our strong concerns with him. We would also call upon the Scottish Government to do all it can to continue with free asymptomatic testing in Scotland, and an effective test and protect regime.

“We must ensure that the protections that have helped to keep people safe continue, as we see an alarming rise in infections, hospitalisations and, sadly, deaths at this current time.”

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A spokeswoman said the UK Government had "created a world-leading testing programme - the largest in Europe". She added: "We know so much more about this virus than we did at the start of the pandemic two years ago and we will use our improved knowledge and understanding to continue to protect the most vulnerable with targeted vaccines and treatments, including anti-virals.

“Health is a devolved matter in Scotland and it is for the Scottish Government to set their own guidance around Covid restrictions and testing.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “After Easter – from 18 April - we will stop recommending that people who don’t have symptoms, should test for Covid. This change will apply across the population –including in universities and colleges.

“Free testing will not generally be available to the wider population. Instead, our advice will be that if you have symptoms of Covid – or indeed symptoms of the flu, or any other infectious illness - you should stay at home in order to aid your recovery.”