Nicola Sturgeon backtracks over lockdown plan by suggesting lower tier of restrictions in April

Simon Johnson
·6-min read
Nicola Sturgeon has backtracked over her lockdown exit plan - Getty Images Europe
Nicola Sturgeon has backtracked over her lockdown exit plan - Getty Images Europe
Nicola Sturgeon has backtracked over her lockdown exit plan - Getty Images Europe

Nicola Sturgeon has backtracked over her controversial lockdown plan by conceding that parts of Scotland could move in April to a lower tier of restrictions that allows domestic travel and pubs to serve alcohol.

The First Minister faced a barrage of criticism over her blueprint after stating that the entire mainland would initially move to Level 3 of her five-tier system when full lockdown formally ends on April 26.

The beleaguered tourism and hospitality industries said many of their businesses would have to remain shut, with alcohol and travel outside council areas banned under the Level 3 restrictions that operated last year.

Ms Sturgeon has conceded that parts or all of the country could instead speedily move to Level 2, which previously allowed restaurants and pubs to serve alcohol and open later.

In a second about-turn, she said she hoped that travel restrictions within Scotland could be lifted from the end of April. The previous day she said they needed to continue "for some time yet" and her blueprint gave no indication of when they would be eased.

Adopting a markedly more optimistic tone, after she was accused of failing to give people hope, she predicted that Scotland "could move to lower levels of restrictions fairly quickly over May and June."

— Scottish Hospitality Group #Hospitality (@ScottishGroup) February 24, 2021Reports of an upsurge in demand for holidays abroad late summer.
Keeping hospitality and tourism closed longer in Scotland, without giving good evidential reason, is driving this and will cost us a 4th Winter! More grant support now essential #SHG #scottishhospitality pic.twitter.com/LmFE1g50ql

However, Ms Sturgeon refused to bow to widespread criticism that her "holding plan" provided few clues about the summer and no route out of lockdown. She plans to publish a more detailed document in the middle of next month.

Watch: Nicola Sturgeon outlines road map out of lockdown for Scotland

In contrast, Boris Johnson's route map for England gave an indicative date of June 21 for when all limits on social contact and gatherings will be scrapped.

The First Minister insisted she would be "making it up" if she provided more detail on her plan beyond April, despite the Prime Minister making clear his timetable was provisional and he would be led by "data not dates."

But she said that Scotland's progress out of lockdown was only around a fortnight behind England's until the end of April and predicted that her government would not be "massively behind" when all four stages of Mr Johnson's plan are completed.

Ms Sturgeon started to backtrack as business fury intensified, with the seafood processing industry stating it needed "at least an indicative timeline like that laid out for England to allow businesses to make plans."

The struggling tourism and hospitality sectors have complained they have been left in limbo, with firms unable to take summer bookings as they do not know which tier their areas will be in or what restrictions they will be operating under.

— Douglas Ross MP (@Douglas4Moray) February 24, 2021We didn’t get the routemap we needed yesterday, we got a holding document.

The SNP's plan to end restrictions is so sluggish that it’s likely we’ll get their Referendum Bill before we get a routemap out of this crisis. pic.twitter.com/K6SRDSsu5H

Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, said the First Minister had been "rattled" by the criticism her proposals were vague and unclear, less than 24 hours after they were unveiled.

He said: "Nicola Sturgeon gave people next to no hope of when restrictions would ease and now she's having to furiously backtrack. She seems to be on the verge of a climb-down over her lockdown plan already.

"When people just want a clear message of hope and certainty, they're getting less clarity and more confusion from the First Minister."

He accused Ms Sturgeon of "trying to rewrite history and claim that was the plan all along" after she insisted she had told MSPs the previous day that each council area would move down to "at least" Level 3.

She actually told the Scottish Parliament that all mainland areas would move out of full Level 4 lockdown "and back initially to Level 3." The only parts she said could move to a lower tier were islands areas like Orkney and Shetland that are already in Level 3.

In addition, her blueprint warned that the levels would be toughened up to reflect the increased transmissibility of the new Covid variant. It said this would mean case numbers will have to fall further than last year for a council area to be put into a lower tier.

Speaking at the Scottish Government's thrice-weekly Covid briefing, Ms Sturgeon said her plan was deliberately cautious at the start "because we don't yet know exactly what will happen with the new variant when we do start to open up."

But she said she may be able to move "further and faster" after that, raising the possibility that "there might be parts of the country - perhaps more rural communities - that are able to go straight to Level 2".

Pressed on her plans, she said "It may by the time we get to April 26 we have greater confidence in where we are in the fight against the virus so some parts of the country can go straight to Level 2, and hopefully we might see the whole country go to Level 2 in the not too distant future after April 26.

"This is about getting back to normal and reopened as quickly as possible."

— Scottish Seafood Asn (@SeafoodScottish) February 24, 2021which failed to spell out even indicative dates that would allow ailing sectors to plan ahead.

Scottish Seafood Association chief executive Jimmy Buchan said: “We do acknowledge the need for caution to get us out of the Covid-19 pandemic once and for all, and accept that 2/4

Ms Sturgeon said she hoped to allow Scots to travel beyond their council areas when the 'stay at home' message is lifted on April 5, with the boundaries possibly extending to much larger health board areas.

However, she refused to give any indication on when cross-Border travel with England would be allowed, citing the less stringent hotel quarantine rules there for international travellers.

Refusing to provide any key dates beyond April, she said: "It's not that I think by the time that we get to a point where England is definitely ending all restrictions that Scotland will be massively behind - there would be no real reason for that.

"The difference is I don't feel that I can stand here - maybe the Prime Minister knows things I don't but that's unlikely in relation to the virus - I don't think I can stand here right now and say June 21 with any certainty. I would literally be making it up and I don't think that's fair."

But Jimmy Buchan, chief executive of the Scotish Seafood Association, said: "“As the Scottish Government well knows, many sectors are on the brink of collapse due to market volatility, and we need at least a degree of certainty to prevent the situation deteriorating.

“It is time to drive and enthuse people to find work in the seafood and hospitality sectors instead of depressing them further.”

Watch: How England will leave lockdown