Nicola Sturgeon 'keeping Scots in dark' over lockdown exit after only unveiling plan until April

Simon Johnson
·6-min read
Nicola Sturgeon has only unveiled a lockdown plan until April 26 -  Getty Images Europe
Nicola Sturgeon has only unveiled a lockdown plan until April 26 - Getty Images Europe

Nicola Sturgeon has been accused of keeping the public and businesses in the dark over her route out of lockdown after publishing a "partial" timetable outlining a very limited easing of restrictions only until the end of April.

The First Minister announced a slow relaxation of restrictions, with all primary pupils returning to school and four people from two households being allowed to meet outside by March 15.

The 'stay at home' order is expected to be lifted on April 5 and Scotland will move back to regional tiers of restrictions from the end of that month, complete with tougher criteria for moving down a level to reflect the increased transmissibility of the new Covid variant.

All areas of the country will initially move back to Level 3, allowing non-essential shops and hairdressers to reopen. Restaurants, pubs and bars were allowed to serve food until 6pm under the old system but no alcohol, meaning many remained shut.

However, unlike Boris Johnson's plan for England the day before, Ms Sturgeon's blueprint gave no indication of when pubs and hotels can fully reopen nor when limits on social contact and gatherings will be scrapped.

Neither was there any sign of when families living in different parts of Scotland or the UK can reunite, with Ms Sturgeon warning that travel restrictions were needed for "some time yet". Scots had to remain in their council areas under the previous Level 3 system.

Urging Scots to "stick with it", Ms Sturgeon said further details would be provided in the middle of next March and defended the lack of detail beyond April, arguing the situation was too uncertain.

Although the Prime Minister made clear his timetable to June 21 was provisional and he would be led by "data not dates", she argued going beyond April was akin to providing "false assurance or picking arbitrary dates."

She said she wanted by the summer "much greater freedoms than we have today" in full lockdown but provided few clues about what life will be like.

Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tories' Holyrood leader, said Ms Sturgeon had published a "holding document" rather than the promised route map out of lockdown and said Scots "were at least expecting the First Minister to give the them some kind of hope."

CBI Scotland said the document was a "small step in the right direction" but it had left many businesses "deflated" that nothing more than a "partial timetable" had been provided, with little information on when they can reopen.

The crisis-hit Scottish tourism sector warned hotels and bed-and-breakfasts could lose out on bookings from England thanks to the lack of detail over what restrictions will be in place in the summer.

Ms Sturgeon's plan was broadly similar to the Prime Minister's for England until the end of April, with both blueprints prioritising schools, allowing limited social gatherings outdoors and reopening non-essential retail.

Almost a third of Scotland's adult population have received their first vaccine dose and Edinburgh University research published this week found this cut the risk of being admitted to hospital by up to 94 per cent.

But Ms Sturgeon said the R number - the average number of people each Covid carrier infects - may not be far below the crucial figure of one that would mean cases are increasing again and "we have quite limited scope at this stage for easing restrictions."

She said this meant that "for a bit longer, we need to rely very heavily on restrictions to suppress the virus". However, she said there would be a transition in the coming months as "we gradually rely less and less on restrictions, and more and more on vaccination."

The remainder of primary pupils are due to return to classrooms on March 15 "for at least part of their learning" after children in the first three years went back on Monday. Some secondary pupils may also return.

However, she said all pupils would not be back in classrooms until April 5, confusingly around the same time as the Easter holidays. Some communal worship will be permitted around the same date and click-and-collect retail will resume.

Six people from two households will again be permitted to meet outdoors. From April 26, the regional levels system will be reintroduced.

But the plan warned that " restricting travel continues to be a regrettable but vital part of our overall strategy" to limit transmission, including "restricting travel within Scotland and to and from other parts of the UK".

There is likely to be a gap of at least three weeks between each easing of restrictions to assess the impact of changes, and to check that it is safe to proceed further using the six conditions for safe easing set out by the World Health Organisation.

Unveiling her plan at Holyrood, the First Minister said: "In mid-March - when we have made further progress on vaccines and have greater understanding of the impact of the initial phase of school return - I hope we can set out then more detail of the further reopening that will take place over April and May and into a summer when we hope to be living with much greater freedoms than we are today."

She argued that providing a longer term blueprint would be "like putting your finger in the wind and coming up with a date that's not firmly based in the evidence."

But Ms Davidson said: "We didn’t get information about when measures like social distancing will end and when we will be able to do something as basic as give a loved one a hug.

“Everyone understands that we might not be able to give people absolute certainty - but they were at least expecting the First Minister to give them some kind of hope."