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Education / Students wishing to travel home encouraged to seek advice

UNIVERSITY and college students from Shetland struggling in their accommodation on the mainland who wish to return home have been advised to get in touch with the relevant authorities for advice about travel back north.

It comes after students were advised against using public transport if they wished to leave their accommodation and return home.

Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart has written to education secretary John Swinney on the matter, saying “it looks as though islanders have once again been an afterthought”.

Richard Lochhead.Richard Lochhead.

However, speaking to BBC Radio Shetland on Thursday, Scottish minister for further and higher education Richard Lochhead advised that students wishing to Shetland should get in touch with health authorities.

“What I’m suggesting…is that they should speak to the test and protect team who asked them to self-isolate in the first place,” he said. 

“And if they are unable to unable to continue in their current student household because they are not coping or whatever, and they do feel they want to return home, then the test and protect team will in turn speak to the local health board in their home area who will liaise with the ferry companies for instance and then give advice back to the students.

“Please speak to the university authorities, get in touch with the test and protect team, and get their advice from there.”

Lochhead said the key message, however, was for people to remain in student accommodation where possible.

New guidance was imposed on students following a series of outbreaks of Covid-19 at Scottish universities.

Students who moved to attend university are now considered to be a new household with people they may be living with.

But a change in the guidance allowed people, including those self-isolating needing essential support, to return home if they felt it necessary.

Students who are struggling to cope in university accommodation were told that they could go back home on a permanent basis.

The rule against using public transport, though, appeared to bar students from the isles from returning home.

Lochhead said he understood it would be very difficult for some people to return home without using public transport, but he said the guideline was put in place to limit the spread of Covid-19.

Some students also criticised the fact that in some instances they returned to cities at the start of the semester just to learn mainly online.

Lochhead said if first year students were told to stay at home for online learning that would have meant missing out on making new connections, meeting tutors and getting used to their campus – with the minister claiming this would have an impact on their mental health and wellbeing, and education experience.

He said there are “risks and harms” with either staying at home or allowing people to move on with the “next stage of their lives” and go to university or college.

Wishart, meanwhile, said this week: “These problems were entirely predictable, and have been on the horizon for months. Scottish Liberal Democrats have been asking for a plan of action throughout the summer.

“Given that any travel to or from the islands would involve a flight or a ferry, it looks as though islanders have once again been an afterthought.

“I have asked the education secretary to update the guidance to provide a safe route for students for the islands to be able to return home, just like the rest of the population, and this needs to happen urgently.

“It will be crucial that islanders are fully considered as the government comes up with plans for the Christmas period. They have to be able to make use of the same rights as the rest of the student population.”