Everything you need to know about Nicola Sturgeon's 'halfway house' to freedom

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Nicola Sturgeon - Andrew Milligan/PA
Nicola Sturgeon - Andrew Milligan/PA

Nicola Sturgeon has been accused of creating a confusing "halfway house" to freedom by abolishing social distancing laws from Monday but advising people to stay apart and warning they must wear face masks indefinitely.

The First Minister announced on Tuesday that Scotland would next week move beyond Level 0 - which was supposed to be the lowest level of restrictions in her five-tier system - due to the "steady decline in cases" and "the success of vaccination".

She said most of the remaining legally imposed restrictions, including on physical distancing and social gatherings, would be lifted. This will allow large-scale events to take place, pubs and restaurants to increase capacity and nightclubs to reopen.

Close contacts of those who test positive for Covid will no longer have to self-isolate for 10 days if they are fully vaccinated and test negative. This will also apply to school pupils.

But Ms Sturgeon then said that Scottish Government advice would still be to maintain a "safe distance" from people in other households, especially indoors, and to avoid crowded places.

Teachers will still be required by law to keep at least one metre away from their pupils and each other in schools, with secondary-age children forced to continue wearing face masks in lessons and corridors, as outlined below.

Ms Sturgeon also disclosed that face coverings would continue to be legally mandated in all the other settings now required, meaning restaurant and pub customers will have to wear a mask when not seated or if they are not consuming food and drink.

The First Minister said nightclubs would have to operate under "similar mitigations" but Donald MacLeod, who runs clubs in Glasgow, said he was "baffled" by the new rules and said his venues would not reopen on Monday.

He tweeted: "Compulsory mask wearing continues and is seemingly to be conditional in nightclubs - ridiculous and dangerous idea which effectively makes opening unviable."

Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, accused Ms Sturgeon of "moving the goalposts" again on her timetable for easing restrictions with curbs continuing to be retained in her new "Level Minus One."

But the First Minister said: "I am not going to shout freedom from this virus, because I think it misleads people, the virus is circulating, the risk of new variants is there."

Among Ms Sturgeon's other major announcements were:

  • Employees should continue working from home where possible instead of returning to the office.

  • Outdoor event organisers will have to apply for permission to host more than 5,000 spectators, in a major blow to football clubs.

  • A vaccine certification app is to be launched next month for international travel that could also be used for some domestic venues.

  • Local lockdowns and travel restrictions may still be used to deal with outbreaks.

Business leaders broadly welcomed the easing of restrictions but the Federation of Small Businesses warned trading conditions had been "permanently changed" by the crisis and CBI Scotland said firms would be "confused" by the advice on working from home.

Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, said many businesses had wrongly believed that moving beyond Level 0 would result in the removal of all restrictions.

Gavin Stevenson, the vice-chairman of the Night Time Industries Association, said: "Throughout the pandemic Scottish businesses have been treated more harshly than their counterparts in England.

"For businesses in the late-night sector, the ongoing restrictions and baseline measures mean continued challenges to viability, and for nightclubs in particular any ongoing requirement for masks puts their very future at risk."

Addressing a special virtual session of the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday, Ms Sturgeon said the number of new cases in Scotland had fallen by two-thirds since the latest peak at the start of July, with hospitalisations also falling.

She claimed this was partly thanks to her "careful and steady approach to easing restrictions" but also acknowledged the "exceptional" uptake of the vaccination programme.

Invitations are now going out for children with certain health conditions aged between 12 and 17, while the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation is expected to issue advice on jabbing other youngsters across the UK on Wednesday.

But, while next week's changes would restore a "substantial degree of normality", Ms Sturgeon said they do not "signal the end of the pandemic or a return to life exactly as we knew it".

The First Minister warned she would not hesitate to take the "tough decision" to re-impose some local restrictions if there was a serious outbreak of the virus, saying the government "will seek to take whatever action is necessary to keep the country safe".

Mr Ross welcomed the changes to self-isolation but said: "This new halfway house could create confusion. People are losing patience with these last-minute extensions and limitations on their lives without enough of a justification or a clear idea of what comes next."

Children forced to wear face masks at school

Children in Scotland will also be forced to wear face masks throughout the school day and social distancing rules will remain in force in classrooms, Ms Sturgeon announced on Tuesday.

The First Minister's plans mean children face harsher Covid-19 rules than adults, once the new school year begins north of the border later this month.

Pupils will also be urged to take a lateral flow test before the end of the holidays and to then take tests twice a week after the term begins. Staff will have to stay one metre apart from children and each other.

In England, schools will not be required to enforce face masks or bubbles unless there is a specific Covid-19 outbreak. Secondary school children will be asked to take two lateral flow tests a week at home.

Ms Sturgeon appeared to have caved in to Scotland’s powerful teaching union, the Educational Institute of Scotland, which has demanded strict safety measures remain in force.

Jo Bisset, official organiser of the Scotland parents’ group Us For Them, said Scottish children would face harsher mask rules than any other group, a situation she described as “unacceptable”.

Adults visiting pubs or restaurants in Scotland will be able to remove masks while seated, eating or drinking but children will have to keep them on throughout lessons.

“While nightclubs reopen and football fans flock in their thousands to stadiums across the country, kids will still have to stew in masks all day,” Ms Bisset said.

“Until the mask mandate in classrooms is removed, children will not be able to enjoy that sense of normality again.”

Ms Sturgeon did confirm that a requirement for children to automatically isolate for 10 days if they are identified as a “close contact” of a positive case would be scrapped. Instead, they will have to isolate until they take a PCR test, and the requirement will end if they test negative.

Speaking about the face mask in schools rules, she told Holyrood it would be reviewed after six weeks.

She said: “I am acutely aware that many young people find this difficult ... but for now, we consider this an important protection for them, and for others in the school.”

'Flip-flop' on vaccine passports

Meanwhile, Ms Sturgeon has also confirmed that an app that paves the way for the introduction of vaccine passports in Scotland is under development, less than a week after her deputy appeared to rule out a Covid-19 certification scheme.

The First Minister said that while a final decision had not yet been taken, proof of full vaccination could be required in Scotland to gain access to “higher risk venues” in future.

She confirmed that an app being developed to allow Scots digital access to vaccination records for overseas travel would also include a function that could be used for domestic use.

Her stance contradicted comments from her most senior minister, John Swinney, last week, when he condemned vaccine passports and said they were “the wrong way to handle” public health risks.

Alistair Carmichael, the interim Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, said Ms Sturgeon had “flip-flopped again” on vaccine passports and called on her to rule them out for good.

“Just last week John Swinney said that wouldn't be the right approach,” he said. “Now vaccine passports are not just back on the table, the app paving the way for them is coming to our phones.

"We all know that this government loves centralisation but such a scheme would be a massive imposition on people and on businesses.”

Ms Sturgeon said she was keeping her options open over a vaccine passport scheme but insisted she remained “highly cautious” about their use.

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