Scotland’s students are being offered fast coronavirus testing before Christmas as part of UK-wide plans for a “safer return home”.
Higher education minister Richard Lochhead said the Scottish Government’s “absolute objective is to make sure students can return home for Christmas”.
There are about 240,000 students at Scottish universities, with between 60,000 and 80,000 expected to travel home at the end of term.
Mr Lochhead said the Scottish Government will “bust a gut to make this happen” but warned: “As with large numbers within the population as a whole potentially travelling, this poses a potential risk of virus transmission.”
To guard against this, students are being recommended to take two tests – five days apart – that can provide results in 30 minutes.
The lateral flow tests will be offered on a “voluntary basis to all students who are returning home”, Mr Lochhead said.
Those who test positive will then have the more sensitive PCR test, used in the main coronavirus testing programme, to confirm the result.
The minister told the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday there will be a “staggered and early departure” of students, with universities asked to make the “necessary adjustments” to their teaching schedules to enable this.
Students who want to return home for the festive break are being advised to “voluntarily reduce their social mixing for two weeks” beforehand and only go out for “essential reasons and exercise”.
Mr Lochhead said: “I am sure students will want to make sure they can do all they can do to not take the virus back home with them.”
The minister said the Scottish Government will learn from what happened when students arrived at university for the start of the academic year.
Several outbreaks of coronavirus were reported in university halls of residence after young people arrived from across Scotland, the UK and farther afield.
While Mr Lochhead said infection rates among students have “substantially reduced”, he added it is clear “the return after the new year will not be normal”.
He pledged: “We will work with the sector to offer as much clarity for students and staff as we can in the coming weeks.”
Opposition MSPs welcomed the move to testing for asymptomatic students.
Scottish Conservative education spokesman Jamie Greene said his party has been demanding this for “many months now” and he is “pleased this forms an intrinsic part of the plans”.
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said it is “better late than never” as he has been asking for routine student testing since July.
Greens co-leader Alison Johnstone said testing students before they travel home is a “move in the right direction” but she was “concerned that the minister couldn’t commit to the same robust testing when students return in January”.
Scottish Labour education spokesman Iain Gray said: “The return of students to universities in September was one of the worst-handled episodes in this pandemic, with infection rates soaring and hundreds of students facing self isolation in very difficult circumstances.”
Matt Crilly, NUS Scotland president, said the testing plan will be “a relief to many students and families across Scotland”.
He said universities have must have enough resources to cope with testing demand and support those who remain in their accommodation over the holidays.