Covid-19 Lockdown: Next Steps

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 21st May 2020.

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Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

The Scottish Government has just published a route map to take Scotland through and out of the Covid-19 crisis. It provides information about how and when we might ease the lockdown restrictions while continuing to suppress the virus, and it provides us with some indication of what our journey to a new normal might look like. The route map is, for ease of access, high level, but it will be supplemented in the days ahead with detailed advice and information for the public, as well as guidance covering key sectors of our economy, travel and transport.

In publishing the route map, we confront a fundamental issue. The lockdown restrictions have been absolutely necessary to mitigate the massive harm caused by the Covid-19 virus. However, the lockdown is creating harms of its own—loneliness and social isolation, deepening inequalities and serious damage to our economy. None of us wants it to last any longer than it has to. Today, we are setting out the phases in which we will aim to ease lockdown and reduce the impact on us all—individuals, families, communities and businesses.

The steps we will take are, by necessity, gradual and incremental, and they must also be matched with rigorous, on-going monitoring of the virus. There is no completely risk-free way of lifting the lockdown, but we must mitigate the risks as much as we can, and we must not at any stage act rashly or recklessly. For all our progress, the virus has not gone away. It continues to pose a significant threat to health and, if we move too quickly or without proper care, it could run out of control again very quickly. The danger of a second wave, later in the year, is very real indeed. We must not forget any of that.

At every stage, though, the biggest single factor in controlling the virus will be how well we all continue to observe public health advice. Continued high compliance with the restrictions that are in place at any time, together with hand washing, cough hygiene and physical distancing, will continue to be essential, as will wearing a face covering where that is appropriate. We must also understand and accept what a test, trace and isolate system will require of us all. Each of us will have an on-going responsibility to protect ourselves and each other.

I will do three things in today’s statement. First, I will give an update on where we are now in our efforts to control the virus. Secondly, I will set out the initial ways in which lockdown restrictions are likely to be eased from the end of next week. Finally, I will discuss possible future steps and the approach we will take in deciding which ones to take, and when.

I stress, however, that the nature of what we are dealing with means that the proposals cannot be set in stone. We will conduct formal reviews at least every three weeks, to assess whether and to what extent we can move from one phase to the next, but we will be constantly alive to when we can go faster or whether we have gone too far. It might be that we cannot do everything in a particular phase at the same time. A single phase might span more than one review period. Some measures might be lifted earlier than planned and some later.

Of course, our plans will change if the data, evidence or, indeed, our understanding of the virus changes. We also welcome views on the plans, including from other parties. In addition, I encourage members of the public to read the route map at www.gov.scot and let us know their views. This crisis affects us all, and how we emerge from it safely matters deeply to us all.

In setting out where we are now, I will give an update on the daily statistics before putting the data we now have into a broader context.

In doing that, I want to thank—as I always do—our health and care workers for the extraordinary work that they are doing in incredibly testing circumstances.

As at 9 o’clock this morning, there have been 14,856 positive cases confirmed, which is an increase of 105 from yesterday. A total of 1,318 patients are in hospital with Covid-19; 909 of them have been confirmed as having the virus and 409 are suspected of having Covid-19. That represents a total decrease of 125 from yesterday, including a decrease of 34 in the number of confirmed cases.

A total of 51 people last night were in intensive care with confirmed or suspected Covid-19. That is a decrease of two since yesterday. Unfortunately, I also have to report that, in the past 24 hours, 37 deaths have been registered of patients who have been confirmed through a test as having had the virus, which takes the total number of deaths in Scotland under that measurement to 2,221.

Those numbers, together with yesterday’s figures from National Records of Scotland, spell out very starkly the human cost of this virus. Those are not simply statistics; they all represent individuals whose loss is a source of grief to many. I send my deepest condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one to this virus.

However, the numbers also make it clear—as I indicated yesterday—that our efforts to curb Covid-19 have had an impact. Our mid-range estimate for the number of infectious people in Scotland is now 25,000; however, we expect that number to decrease further.

We are now seeing significant and sustained reductions in the number of confirmed Covid-19 patients in hospital. The number of Covid-19 patients in intensive care is now less than a quarter of what it was at its peak, and yesterday’s National Records of Scotland data showed that the number of Covid-19 deaths has now fallen for three consecutive weeks. Last week’s total was just over half the figure that was reported for the last full week of April.

We are also publishing today a paper that sets out the methods that we use for calculating the R number—the rate at which the virus is reproducing. We will now publish our up-to-date estimate of the R number each Thursday. Our latest estimate is that the R number remains between 0.7 and 1. In March, it was probably above 4.

It is worth saying that, although those figures indicate real progress, we cannot and must not be complacent. Progress remains fragile, and it would be too easy for the virus to run out of control again. The total number of Covid-19 deaths—351 last week alone—is still far too high. Although we estimate that the R number is below 1, the range has not changed this week, and there is still uncertainty about just how far below 1 it is. It may also still be slightly above the R number in other parts of the United Kingdom.

However, we now have some confidence that the R number has been below 1 for more than three weeks and that there has been a reduction in the number of new cases and in the impact of the virus. In my judgment, therefore, the time is right to move towards a careful relaxation of lockdown restrictions. However, as I will say in a moment, we must do so on a timescale that aligns with our development of test, trace and isolate.

Today’s route map outlines four phases in emerging from the Covid-19 crisis beyond the current lockdown phase, and it covers nine key aspects of our lives: seeing friends and family; travel and getting around; education and childcare; work, business and the economy; shopping and leisure; sport and culture; public gatherings and special occasions; communities and public services; and health and social care.

We are legally required to review the lockdown restrictions every three weeks, and the next review date is 28 May—next Thursday. Provided that we continue to make progress in tackling Covid-19 over the next week and, in particular, that we see no regression from our progress so far, I can confirm that the Government intends to move from lockdown to phase 1, and thereby lift some restrictions, from 28 May. As we enter later phases, as and when the evidence allows, more restrictions will be removed—details of the relevant criteria to be met and the restrictions to be eased in each phase are set out in the document.

I am sure that everyone who is watching will want to know what changes will be made as we move to phase 1, but first I offer a word of caution. Not every phase 1 measure will necessarily be introduced immediately on 28 May. Some might be introduced a few days after that, and, depending on the evidence, it is possible that some might have to be postponed, although I very much hope that that will not be the case. Next week, when we have completed our formal review, we will make clear exactly what changes we are making and when, and we will ensure that detailed information is available for the public.

I will now set out some of the likely changes in phase 1. More outdoor activity will be permitted. People will be able to sit or sunbathe in parks and open areas, and they will be able to meet people from one other household—although initially in small numbers—while they are outside. We hope that that change will benefit everyone, but particularly those without gardens and people who live on their own. It is important to stress, though, that different households should remain 2m apart from each other. That will be critical in ensuring that that change does not provide easy routes of transmission for the virus. Because of the much higher risk of indoor transmission, visiting inside each other’s houses will not be permitted in phase 1.

Some non-contact outdoor leisure activities will be allowed to restart, such as golf, tennis, bowls and fishing—subject, of course, to people engaging in appropriate hygiene measures and physical distancing. In addition, people will be able to travel—preferably by walking or cycling—to a location near their local community for recreation, although we are asking people, where possible, to stay within or close to their local area.

Waste and recycling services will resume, as will many outdoor businesses such as agriculture and forestry. The construction industry will be able to carefully implement steps 1 and 2 of its six-step restart plan, which it has developed with us. However, I make it clear that there must be genuine partnership with trade unions—the resumption of activity can take place only if it is done safely.

In the first phase, other industries that are expected to resume in phase 2 will be permitted to prepare workplaces for the safe return of workers and customers. We will no longer discourage takeaway and drive-through food outlets from reopening, as long as they apply safe physical distancing. Outdoor retail outlets such as garden centres will be allowed to reopen. However, non-essential indoor shops, as well as indoor cafes, restaurants and pubs, must remain closed in the first phase.

Some key community support services will resume. For example, face-to-face children’s hearings will restart, using physical distancing, and people who are at risk will have more contact with social work and support services. We are also planning a phased resumption of aspects of the criminal justice system. In addition, we will carefully and gradually resume national health service services that were paused as a result of the crisis. I remind people that, as of now, they should contact their general practitioner or NHS 24, or dial 999, if they need to. That message is really important.

I stress that those phase 1 measures, most of which have an outdoor focus, are not in place yet, and they are dependent on our continuing to suppress the virus. They will also be monitored carefully as they take effect. However, we view them as a proportionate and suitably cautious set of first steps, and I hope that they will bring some improvement to people’s wellbeing and quality of life, start to get our economy moving again and start to steer us safely towards a new normality. It is important to stress, though, that while the permitted reasons for people to be out of their house will increase, the default message during phase 1 will continue to be to stay at home as much as possible.

As we move into subsequent phases, more restrictions will be removed. Details of those later phases and the criteria that we will need to meet are set out in the document.

We will make decisions on when, and to what extent, we can move to those phases carefully, and on the basis of evidence, and we will carry out formal reviews at least every three weeks—although I hope that we can move more quickly than that, if the evidence allows it.

I want to take a moment to talk directly to people who are currently shielding—those whom we have asked to isolate completely for 12 weeks because we know that they are at greatest risk from the virus. We know that the isolation that is imposed by shielding over a long period of time is in itself very difficult and, indeed, harmful, so although we are not changing our advice on shielding yet, I confirm that we will issue new guidance before the initial period of shielding ends on 18 June. I say to those who are shielding that that will aim to increase your quality of life and your ability to make informed choices, while continuing to protect you as much as possible from the risks that the virus poses. I really understand how hard this is for all of you who are shielding, but I want you to know, at this point, that you are central to our thinking, as we move forward—through and out of the crisis.

More generally, the route map sets out what phases 2, 3 and 4 will mean for various areas of activity. It tries to give as definite as possible a sense of when, and on what basis, we might be able to see friends and family on something like a normal basis.

We have set out what the different phases will mean for transport. I confirm that we will publish a much more detailed transport transition plan on Tuesday next week.

We have also outlined the further stages, in which businesses might reopen. I stress that we want to move through the stages as quickly as the evidence allows; getting the economy moving again matters very much to all of us. We have sought to focus first on industries in which people simply cannot work from home. However, safety and the confidence of employers, employees and customers are essential, which is why detailed guidance for key sectors of the economy will follow in the days ahead. I stress that we will continue to require, for the foreseeable future, home working where that is possible. We will also encourage flexible working, including consideration of four-day weeks, for example.

We are indicating the phases in which service industries might reopen—businesses such as restaurants, bars and hairdressers. That last is a priority, I know, for almost every woman in the country—