Scottish Higher Education Minister admits he ‘has not seen’ modelling that predicted universities outbreaks

The Scottish Minister for Higher Education “has not seen” modelling undertaken by Government advisors that found coronavirus outbreaks on university campuses were “entirely predictable”.

Hundreds of students across Scotland are currently self-isolating after Covid-19 outbreaks were identified at several campuses.

Yesterday Professor Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at Edinburgh University, said the UK Government's Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M), had already modelled potential campus outbreaks and considered them “inevitable”.

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But when asked at what point he had seen the modelling while planning for the reopening of Scottish universities, Richard Lochhead, Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, told the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland radio show that he had not seen it.

Richard Lochhead, Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, told the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland radio show that he had not seen modelling on coronavirus outbreaks on university campuses. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)
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“I don’t know what he’s referring to,” he said, “so I’d have to see exactly what he’s referring to to understand and answer that question because I’ve not seen it.

“We had guidance that there is, of course, a risk right across the whole of society and economy for restarting after lockdown, so we had a route map to look at the safe return of colleges and universities.

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“And that’s why we issued guidance to, for instance, universities on how to operate student residences safely, about how to have face-to-face teaching safely.

“And that was all put in place and is being adhered to at the moment,” he added.

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On Sunday, Prof Woolhouse, himself a member of the Government’s SPI-M advisory group, revealed that modelling of university Covid-19 outbreaks had been undertaken before the return of students, calling the current situation “entirely predictable”.

“The first thing to say is that students didn’t start this current phase of the epidemic, this began way back in August in Scotland and the rest of the UK and the students just got caught up in it.

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"Now, because a university involves students coming in from many different parts of the country and congregating in very close proximity, it is inevitable there’s going to be some spread among the student population and that’s what we're seeing.

"There was some very nice modelling done of this by our SPI-M colleagues at the University of Bristol and what they showed quite clearly that the risk areas were particularly first year students in halls of residence as well as face-to-face teaching.

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"So this was very predictable and it was modelled.”

The Scottish Government continues to support a “blend” of remote and face-to-face teaching at universities, but on Sunday relaxed rules preventing students from moving out of campus accommodation after an outcry from unions and mental health charities.

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Students can now return home from university and college accommodation on a long-term basis, as long as they have a “reasonable excuse” - including for a bereavement and their own well-being.

Guidance tells students not to use public transport if they decide to permanently return home, while saying it remains a criminal offence to undertake short stays.

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On Saturday night, Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard called for the Scottish Human Rights Commission to launch a probe into whether the restrictions had breached the human rights of students.

Labour raised potential breaches including students being banned from hospitality venues, students self-isolating in unsuitable accommodation, and students being subject to rules that are different to that of the wider public.

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