Why students refused asymptomatic testing

By Katy Scott

In early November, the government announced its plans to test students who planned to travel home domestically for Christmas. Universities across the country would set up temporary asymptomatic testing centres for around two weeks. The last date for booking a test slot across Scotland was the 13th, with some universities ending the scheme before that

These centres used lateral flow devices which provide a quick result (usually within an hour) and do not require lab processing. 

A total of 43,925 tests were carried out across all sites. Only 79 (0.2%) were positive, although further analysis suggested more than half of these were false positives. This low rate of positive tests shocked officials.

HESA reports that there were 253,475 students enrolled in Scottish universities in the academic year 2018/19, with 195,355 normally living in the UK. If we assume that number remains much the same (although increasing student numbers suggest it may be higher) and use The Herald’s estimate that around a third of these students opt to live at home, this means around 130,000 university students in Scotland live away from home and would have been eligible for an asymptomatic test in order to travel home within the UK for Christmas. 

So why did only a third of them choose to get tested? Students cited the financial impossibility of isolating between tests given work commitments and the lack of communication from the universities around booking tests. They were instructed to get two tests, given the less reliable nature of the speedy lateral flow devices, so the true number of eligible students who got tested could be as low as 17%.

One Strathclyde student, Kane Dinmore, said: “It was useless for many students, especially those who have part-time jobs and are required to work up until the week of Christmas.”

“Especially with lots of students working in retail, I work in a supermarket so Christmas is the busiest time of the year.”

“Offering it at the start of December didn’t accommodate workers and meant we would have to risk taking the virus home or spend Christmas alone.”

Kane reached out to several people with his concerns around going home to vulnerable family members untested and his inability to isolate given his work obligations. His MP replied that the tests were simply a limited trial, while one university member of staff pointed out that the tests were not mandatory and he could try to reduce social contact (despite working with the public) or seek to fund a private test.

Kirsty Fraser was a student at the University of Glasgow and eligible for testing at the time. She said: “I didn’t partake because I was not able to isolate in between the two required tests as I worked for an employer that wouldn’t allow me to work from home. 

“The scheme would only have worked if I could have isolated and worked from home, or if the university had provided financial support and thus allowed me to isolate.  

She continued: “The tests were also done earlier in December and I couldn’t afford to take weeks off of work. If there had been tests available nearer Christmas this could have been an option, or if only one test was required.”

Glasgow student Sarah Williams said: “I didn’t take part [in the scheme] because I was leaving on the 23rd and the tests were only available at the beginning of December.

“The scheme could’ve worked better if they’d had slots open until the last day of term. I couldn’t leave early like other people because I have a pet which can only be left alone for a couple of days at a time.”

Strathclyde student James Rae said: “I didn’t end up using the University’s covid testing scheme partly because I had just recovered from the virus in November so there was a very low likelihood of me having it again so soon. But also, I really didn’t know much about it; where it was or if we needed to book an appointment.”

Rebecca Muir is a Glasgow student who volunteered at the test centres. She said that the team tested the expected number of people in the first week, but that “towards the end of the second week it had gotten really quiet. Most evenings even from the 30th it was quiet as well, to the point that we’d just get sent home early.

“They’ve started testing again in January for people returning to Glasgow but, with the new restrictions, hardly anyone has turned up so we’ve basically been told that they won’t need us to assist until February when more people return.”

One student who wishes to remain anonymous said: “My flatmate didn’t get tested because he didn’t want to know if he was positive so he could make it home for Christmas without having to isolate.”

Stephen Armstrong wrote in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) that when used to test students at the University of Birmingham and universities in Scotland, the lateral flow devices “had a sensitivity of just 3% and that 58% of positive test results were false”.

The manufacturers did not intend for the test to pick up asymptomatic cases, with instructions stating it is “intended for the qualitative detection […] within the first five days of the onset of symptoms.” In response to the false result findings at some universities, Innova Medical Group blamed user error.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon urged students who travelled home for Christmas to remain at home until late February. However, this announcement was made on the 8th January when many may have already returned to term-time accommodation.