Alongside the debate about how best to balance the risks posed by Covid with those posed by the restrictions aimed at combatting the virus runs a related discussion over who has suffered most through the current pandemic.
It’s an interesting concept and one that should inform the thinking of decision-makers but we should not allow it to diminish what one individual or group is going through simply because we know of others enduring much worse. At times over recent weeks, unfortunately, it has felt like this has been the fate of those within our student community.
Of course, that student community comprises individuals whose circumstances and ability to cope vary enormously. Overall, though, it is as if they are being held collectively responsible for the current resurgence in Covid infections, despite evidence showing this dates back to early August, well before the start of university and college terms.
For those entering the first year of their course, this latest episode follows close on the heels of the earlier exams fiasco. For most, the promise of ‘blended’ learning has given way to exclusively online courses and no face-to-face contact with tutors combined with sky-high accommodation costs.
The tragedy of this is that it was so predictable. For weeks, my colleague, Willie Rennie had been reminding the First Minister that the return of colleges and universities represented the single largest movement of people since the start of lockdown back in March. He, like the Scottish Government’s own advisers, called for systematic testing as well as other measures aimed at containing the risk.
Despite that, Ministers and universities appear to have been caught cold. Certainly the response to the unfolding mess over the last fortnight has been confused, uncertain and largely hapless, epitomised by government advice that changed three times in the space of four days. Even now, the updated advice on students travelling home, which bans the use of public transport, ignores the logistical realities for island students. That is disappointing, but scarcely surprising.
As it happens, I’m due to meet later this week with the Health Secretary, Jeane Freeman and National Clinical Director, Professor Jason Leitch to discuss the possibility of a more ‘localised’ approach to applying restrictions in our islands. This follows recent comments from Prof Leitch that such an approach is conceivable in island communities, where confirmed cases have remained relatively low and movement in and out can be more tightly controlled.
It’s not the first time Prof Leitch or Ministers have dangled this ‘carrot’. To date, however, there’s been no detail on how it would work in practice or what conditions would be attached. My suspicion is that in return for a slight easing of the restrictions on meeting in each other’s homes, an effective travel ban would be imposed. If that’s the case, it would represent too high a price. Even so, greater clarity is needed on the flexibility for people to continue visiting those who may be at risk, whether from isolation, poor mental health or other vulnerabilities. After all, this is supposed to be about keeping people safe and well.
The same is true of students. As well as stepping up testing, the government needs to do more to ease the financial burden in relation to accommodation costs, while working with universities and colleges to provide targeted support, including mental health support, to those who are struggling.
Nicola Sturgeon has expressed genuine sympathy for students, including her own nephew, and also repeated her acknowledgement that she has made mistakes. As ever, though, any and all suggestions about what those mistakes might have been have been brushed aside, often with the claim that any criticism is simply a reflection of wisdom with hindsight.
It is hard, though, to make that argument in this instance. Much of what the First Minister is having to deal with at present is horrendously unpredictable. However, the risks associated with students from across the UK and internationally returning to university and college campuses may have been complex to manage, but they can hardly be said to have been a bolt from the blue.