Nicola Sturgeon has insisted students are not to blame for a rise in coronavirus cases – but urged them to obey rules this weekend banning them from pubs and socialising outside their households.
The First Minister said she was “so heart sorry” for the situation students are now in and said she felt “especially for those of you starting university for the first time”.
It comes after students staying in halls were also told they cannot visit their parents’ homes indoors under current national restrictions.
On Thursday evening, strict new measures were announced for the weekend to stem campus outbreaks in Scotland.
Hundreds of cases have been linked to universities in recent days, with more than 1000 students self-isolating as a result.
Students face disciplinary action from their universities, up to and including expulsion, if they breach rules this weekend against visiting pubs, cafes and restaurants.
They are also forbidden from going to house parties, or from socialising with anyone outside their household or student accommodation.
In a statement on Thursday, the governing body Universities Scotland blamed the measures on the behaviour of a “minority” of students.
It warned it would take a “yellow card/red card” approach to breaches of the new rules, with expulsion from university a last-resort punishment for offending students.
But the country’s universities union UCU Scotland hit back against “blaming students” and said university principals had actively “encouraged” students back onto campuses en masse.
In a bid to provide reassurance to students and parents, Sturgeon addressed the issue at Friday’s Covid-19 briefing as she announced a record daily total of 558 new coronavirus cases.
Addressing students, Sturgeon said: “I am so sorry, so heart sorry, that this time of your lives is being made as tough as it is just now.
“I really feel for you, but I feel especially for those of you starting university for the first time and, of course, living alone for the first time.
“This is an exciting time in your lives but I remember from my own experience… that it’s also a time of adjustment and it’s also a time of home sickness as well, and that’s the case for students every year without Covid-19 but it is much more difficult given the circumstances you are all facing right now.”
She acknowledged some students feel they are being blamed for the spread of Covid-19 but declared: “That is not the case… it’s not your fault.”
The FM also clarified that students who work in the hospitality sector will be able to work their usual shifts over the September weekend.
But besides that exception, she urged students not to go to bars or restaurants or to visit other households.
She also called on students to download the Protect Scotland app, although stressed it is “not mandatory”.
Thursday’s Universities Scotland statement had suggested students would be “required” to download the contact tracing software.
The First Minister said universities have a “big, big responsibility” to look out for the welfare and mental wellbeing of their students.
She told the briefing: “I’ve spoken personally this morning to university principals to stress their responsibilities to you and I know it is something they take seriously, but I also know that it’s something that parents will want to be assured of.
“Student services already have special arrangements in place including 24-hour helplines, support for food deliveries and additional mental health counsellors for those who might need that support.”
Sturgeon said the Scottish Government is assessing whether self-isolating students can be allowed to leave their accommodation and return to their family homes, and fresh guidance on that could be issued over the weekend.
But she warned: “I’m going to be frank, that’s a difficult balancing act, because if you go home after you’ve been asked to self-isolate that may have implications for your family, who then also may be asked to self-isolate if you test positive.
“I wanted to let you know that we are looking at what might be possible there and it is our aim to issue some further guidance on that over the weekend.”
She also thanked students for their compliance, adding: “You’re bearing a burden that I desperately wish you didn’t have to be bearing right now, but you’re playing your collective part in beating Covid-19 back.
“For that, you have my thanks and deep appreciation, and also understanding of how difficult this is for you at this time.”