SNP ministers have backtracked over a ban on students returning to their family homes by setting out a series of loopholes that will allow them to visit their parents.
In guidance issued on Sunday night, students were told that while legal restrictions on visiting another home indoors remain in force, those who travelled home for “wellbeing” reasons would not be punished as this would be seen as a "reasonable excuse".
In effect, the change gives students a wide range of excuses that they could use to get around the law.
The change follows an intense backlash to a “student-only lockdown” over the weekend, when they told to stay away from pubs. Students also face stricter punishments if they fail to follow rules, and have been warned that they may be kicked out of university if they attend or organise parties.
There's additional @ScotGovEdu guidance out now on households & visits home for students. Every uni is there to provide practical, emotional & financial support. Every student should feel able to reach out and ask for any support they need. Our response: https://t.co/hMbJuqTzaF— Universities Scotland (@uni_scot) September 27, 2020
Meanwhile, those self-isolating in university halls will also be able to travel home if they have an excuse, for example for mental health or financial reasons, although all other family members will then also have to quarantine.
Over the weekend, students defied orders to remain in self-isolation in halls of residences hit by outbreaks, with many choosing to return to their family homes rather than spend 14 days in quarantine in "prison-like" conditions in university accommodation.
They abandoned residences despite warnings that strict disciplinary action would be taken under a “yellow card, red card” system that has been drawn up, which it was made clear to students includes being expelled.
Tory MSP Jamie Halcro Johnston called the new guidance "another significant u-turn from SNP ministers", following major reversals on schools reopening and exam results.
He added: "They have now been forced to row back on their previous hardline approach because it was being ignored."
The wide-ranging exemptions were set out following days of confusion for students. Last Wednesday, students were initially told they could go home to their parents, only to be told the following day that this would not be the case.
Meanwhile, the guidance also states that it is likely Scottish students will be able to legally return home for Christmas, although further rules will be issued at a later date.
Students who wish to quit university halls or student flats are able to move home permanently, the guidelines state.
Gerry McCormac, Convener of Universities Scotland and Principal of the University of Stirling, said: “The Scottish Government’s additional guidance about households puts the emphasis on staying within existing households and avoiding overnight stays elsewhere for now, but not at the expense of an individual’s wellbeing.
“It also makes clear that a change of household is possible but offers guidance to limit this to cases where a change then become the person’s main or only residence on a long-term basis.”
Despite warnings of severe penalties, police were called to break up parties at the University of Edinburgh’s Pollock Halls at the weekend. An entire student residence at the University of Abertay in Dundee is in lockdown, while at least 600 have been ordered to quarantine at Murano Street student village in Glasgow.
However, principals were warned that they had put themselves in a legal “firing line” by forcing draconian coronavirus restrictions on students and could be sued if they follow through on threats to expel rule breakers.
Nick McKerrell, senior lecturer in law at Glasgow Caledonian University, said he believed that students who did find themselves disciplined under the tough rules would have solid grounds for legal action.
He said although the guidelines had been publicly backed by Nicola Sturgeon, they had been drawn up outside of any legal procedure or scrutiny, in contrast to the general rules that everyone is required to follow.
He added that potentially ending a student’s career in Higher Education was an “entirely disproportionate” sanction for breaking rules, with the rest of society generally facing a £60 fine for a first offence, doubling to £120 for a second violation.
“There is the basis for legal action here – not simply under Human Rights Law, there is a history of the Scottish Courts hearing legal actions of judicial review brought by students who feel they have been inappropriately removed from their studies,” Dr McKerrell said.
While the new loopholes will offer relief to UK students at Scottish universities, it remains unclear how international students could return home if they are self-isolating, given the ban on using public transport. Problems could also arise if students or family members do not have access to a car.
Reese Chamberlain, an 18-year-old first year at the University of Edinburgh, who is from the US, said: “As an international student coming to this country I have already isolated [due to quarantine measures] and I am in my second round of isolation now.
“If you are a British student it is very easy to pack up and go home, but I am 3,000 miles away and it is very hard to get on the next flight out.”