Nicola Sturgeon defended the new restrictions being imposed on students this weekend as “common sense measures” designed to curb the spread of accelerating outbreaks in universities.
The First Minister has come under fierce criticism for the restrictions, which include asking students to not socialise in pubs, restaurants and cafes, as well as not within their halls of residences, over the weekend.
She was criticised for mixed messaging around the issue and for limited scientific evidence for a one-weekend ban for all students, including mature and post-graduate students.
Ms Sturgeon said mass testing of students was not done to avoid false security over the infectiousness of students.
She also denied the suggestion that universities pressured the Scottish Government to allow a return to campus for students to help avoid a financial black hole in university finances which would have appeared through non-payment of high student accommodation rents.
Speaking at her daily coronavirus briefing, Ms Sturgeon said she expected to see the number of students testing positive for Covid-19 would rise and clarified that while students will not be able to socialise within their households at pubs and bars, those who have jobs in hospitality or retail will be expected to go to work.
"This is about socialising,” said the First Minister, “and the evidence, look, we are trying to make some common sense judgements here. If we have outbreaks among student populations, what are the things we can do?
"We know that these outbreaks we are having right now will have started in exposures that students have had in the previous days.
"What we need to do now is try to stem that by reducing the chances of students who might have the virus but haven’t been tested yet because they don’t have symptoms, they might not know, passing that on further and going into settings where they might be taking it outside the student population.
"So it’s kind of common sense that one way of doing that over the next few days is to stay out of pubs and restaurants.”
Ms Sturgeon said this applied whether students were meeting their friends or their family, but not to those working in hospitality and retail.
She said: “We recognise if people have to go to work they have to go to work. We are not stopping students going to work.”
However the deputy chief medical officer, Dr Nicola Steedman, said people are most infectious just as symptoms appear and in the two or three days before the symptoms appear.
She said it would make a difference for students potentially exposed to Covid-19 to not go to “crowded environments” during this period.
Dr Steedman said: “It might well just remove those people who are not yet symptomatic who could be transmitting the virus.”
Ms Sturgeon said she didn’t “underestimate” the challenge for students facing these issues, but added that she was “equally not sure it was the most difficult thing” she has asked people to do and for people to “keep it in perspective”
During the briefing the First Minister also reiterated that universities had her backing if they were to decide to expel or exclude students who were found to have broken the rules.
She added: “We are trying to strike the right balance here but take account of people’s practical necessities as we do.”
Ms Sturgeon was also challenged on why students were not offered mass testing as they returned to universities over the coming weeks.
The defence, that asymptomatic testing could give false positives or a false sense of security, was put to her as the some one used by the Scottish Government when patients were being discharged from hospitals into care homes in April.
“It is not a defence it is an attempt at an explanation,” said the First Minister, “I’m genuinely not trying to be defensive about any aspect of this.
"I think anybody applying any common sense would know that while yes, the limitations as well as opportunities of testing are the same regardless of what population you are talking about, it is absolutely not the same to be talking about vulnerable elderly people going from hospitals to care homes and talking about students in a campus situation that will be going and mixing with other people.
"These are two fundamentally different things. We would be in danger of giving the message that if you test negative, you can just run your life normally and go to the pub and socialise normally.”
The First Minister also insisted that the communication of the new regulations “didn’t seem unclear” but that the Scottish Government would take on board the criticism.
Ms Sturgeon, speaking about a clarification around the rules lasting for this weekend she issued on Twitter on Thursday night, said: “I looked at the statement that Universities Scotland put out and it actually didn’t seem that unclear to me.
"We all have a duty and it is a duty I take really seriously to communicate really clearly and if with the best will of the world that wasn’t as clear as it could have been then of course we will try and learn these lessons.
"If people think that any communication wasn’t clear enough we have got to take that on board.”
Ms Sturgeon added that guidance around the issue of whether students would be allowed to return home to their parents if they have been asked to self-isolate would be released over the weekend as the Scottish Government continues to assess the issue.