Covid in Scotland: Nicola Sturgeon unveils 'cautious' route out of lockdown

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Media caption,
Nicola Sturgeon says Scotland's economy will begin to reopen from the end of April

The reopening of Scotland's economy - including shops, bars, restaurants, gyms and hairdressers - is expected to start from 26 April, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has announced.

She said it was hoped that the country's stay at home restrictions could be lifted on 5 April.

Four people from two households will be allowed to meet outdoors from 15 March.

All primary pupils and S4 to S6 secondary students could return to school from that date.

However, pupils in the first three years of secondary school are unlikely to return until after the Easter holidays.

Ms Sturgeon said the Scottish government's strategic framework was "deliberately cautious" at this stage.

"But in the coming weeks, if the data allows and positive trends continue, we will seek to accelerate the easing of restrictions," she said.

However, opposition parties said the statement "fell short" of expectations and lacked clarity on its "ultimate goal", while business leaders called for more detail.

On Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that shops, hairdressers, gyms and outdoor hospitality in England could reopen on 12 April.

Under a four-step plan to ease lockdown south of the border, all legal limits on social contact could be lifted by 21 June if strict conditions are met.

Ms Sturgeon said the aim in Scotland was to move fully back to a levels system of restrictions from the last week in April.

"At that stage, we hope that all parts of the country currently in level four will be able to move out of level four and back initially to level three - possibly with some revision to the content of the levels."

The first minister said that from 26 April, the government would expect to see a "phased but significant re-opening of the economy, including non essential retail, hospitality and services like gyms and hairdressers".

More detail will be set out in mid-March, including the order in which parts of the economy will reopen.

The aim is for a "progressive easing" of the level four restrictions at three-week intervals.

Scotland's youngest children and some senior pupils returned to the classroom on Monday, and Ms Sturgeon said schools were the "immediate priority".

It is hoped that the next phase will see the remaining primary school pupils return from 15 March, with more senior pupils back in the classroom "for at least part of their learning".

Deputy First Minister John Swinney told Radio Scotland's Drivetime show that this would not just be senior pupils studying for qualifications, and that he wanted to see all S4 to S6 pupils "back into the school system" on this date if the data allows.

The rules on outdoor mixing would also be relaxed on that date, with up to four people from two households allowed to meet, and non-contact sports for under-18s resuming.

Image source, PA Media
Image caption,
The youngest pupils returned to school this week

The final phase of the return to school would take place from 5 April, a date when school pupils will be at the start or middle of their Easter holiday break.

It is also hoped to lift the stay at home restrictions from that date. At least six people from two households should be able to meet together outdoors, and communal worship will be allowed to resume.

The timing of major religious festivals - such as Easter - will be taken into account when deciding the exact date.

The levels system of restrictions would then be reintroduced from 26 April, along with a "more substantial" reopening of society and the economy.

"It is important to stress, of course, that all of this depends on us continuing to suppress the virus now - and continuing to accept some trade-offs for a period, for example on international travel," said Ms Sturgeon.

"However, if we do so, I am optimistic that we can make good progress in returning more normality to our lives and the economy."

Will the first minister go faster?

Image source, PA Media

Analysis by Lucy Whyte, BBC Scotland education correspondent

Scotland may have been among the first of the four nations to get any pupils in class, but it looks like it could be one of the last to have all pupils back to in-person learning.

This plan could see more children, especially primary pupils, allowed back in the classroom by 15 March, a week after England.

But the full return of Scotland's schools might not happen until a month later.

The decision to stick with a phased approach will be welcomed by teaching unions, who will also be glad to see the inclusion of blended learning initially for senior pupils.

The 5 April date for the potential full return to class is at the start of the Easter holidays for most, so really we are talking about the middle of that month before everyone is back.

Will the first minister go faster? She has made clear that she will if she can, and there is a precedent when she accelerated the full return to school in August last year.

On that occasion she could demonstrate that numbers were on her side.

The Scottish Conservatives' Holyrood leader, Ruth Davidson, said the statement "fell short of public expectations".

"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," she said.

"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.

"Nothing has been published about what happens after 26 April. This isn't a route map out of Covid, it is holding document."

Image source, Getty Images

Ms Sturgeon said dates became "more arbitrary" the further you looked into the future.

"It is like putting your finger in the wind and coming up with a date that is not firmly based in the evidence," she said.

Scottish Labour's interim leader, Jackie Baillie, said the statement lacked clarity on its "ultimate goal".

She also called for a revised testing strategy which includes mass community testing where appropriate.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie voiced concern that vaccine passports were "slowly gaining traction" and said: "We don't want a two tier society which would exacerbate inequalities."

Scottish Green Party co-leader Patrick Harvie also raised fears that vaccine passports could make social inequality worse.

Image source, Reuters

Tracy Black, director of CBI Scotland, said many Scottish businesses would be "left feeling deflated" as there was still "considerable uncertainty" about how and when they could reopen their doors.

She said businesses recognised it was right to take a cautious approach, but "will have been looking for more detail than the partial timetable that has been provided".

Liz Cameron, the chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, said: "It is important that Scotland remains as closely in step with the four nations as is possible.

"A competitive disadvantage to business communities elsewhere in the UK will only add insult to the injury already caused by the pandemic."

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