Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 8th December 2020.

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The First Minister:

I know that Richard Leonard is perfect at public communication, but the rest of us are mere mortals. On Sunday, the health secretary communicated something that she realised was not as clear as it should have been. She immediately clarified it, which was a reasonable thing to do. I am sure, however, that we will all continue to take lessons from Richard Leonard.

On the substantive issues that he raised, it is complex to apply a system of levels; it would be much easier to put the entire country on a set of national restrictions. It would be much easier, but it would be fundamentally wrong, because differing levels of prevalence do not justify it.

We deliberately and rightly go through a complex process every week to judge the best level for each area. That is, to a large extent, informed by the indicators that we publish every Tuesday. As I said from the first day when we published the information, the approach must also involve contextual judgments.

Take, as an example, three local authorities—Stirling, South Ayrshire and West Dunbartonshire—that will come out of level 4 on Friday. If we look only at the indicators we could make a case that those areas should go straight to level 2, but it would actually be overly risky to take an area directly from level 4 to level 2, at the moment. Such easing could very quickly put those areas into reverse. Therefore it is better and steadier, and is in the long-term interests of those areas, to take them more steadily down the levels.

Those are the judgments that we make. People can decide whether they agree, but the judgments are made for the best possible reasons, in trying to get the best outcomes for areas.

I went into the case of Argyll and Bute in my statement. On the face of it, Argyll and Bute has had a sharp increase in cases, but as Jackie Baillie will be aware, there has been one significant workplace outbreak in Argyll and Bute, which is what lies behind the figures—not wider community transmission. If we were to take Argyll and Bute up a level for that reason, we would be putting the wider population under levels of restriction that are not merited because we know what lies behind the figures.

Such are the complex decisions that we make in trying to ensure that what we do is as proportionate and targeted as possible. We will continue to the best of our ability to make those decisions.

I understand the particular frustration that will be felt in Edinburgh. The Cabinet agonised over some decisions—those for Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire and the City of Edinburgh. There has been a recent rise in cases. In the breakdown of today’s cases, the number in Lothian is—from memory—second only to Glasgow. There is a need for some caution. All Governments are struggling with the decisions. Cases are starting to rise again in some parts of the UK, and that might also happen in Scotland, as we ease up over the next few weeks: we cannot guarantee that it will not. We are taking a cautious approach in order to mitigate that risk.

Lastly, on Richard Leonard’s characterisation—“last-minute” U-turns—I need to remind him, again, that we are dealing with an infectious and unpredictable virus. All the areas that I have referred to will come out of level 4 on Friday, but we must remain flexible in facing the virus. If I were to stand here right now and say that, no matter the trajectory of the virus, we will not change any of our decisions, people across Scotland would take a very dim view of that, because I would not properly be doing my job of trying to keep the country as safe as I can.