A new roadmap out of lockdown will be published next week but restrictions will remain in place across Scotland until at least early March “and possibly for a period beyond that”, Nicola Sturgeon has announced.
The first minister told MSPs her government is working on a “revised strategic framework” to be published next Tuesday that will “set out in much more detail when and how we might gradually emerge from lockdown”.
In a statement to Holyrood, in which she also confirmed Scottish schools will reopen for P1-3 children and secondary pupils who need to carry out practical assignments from Monday, Ms Sturgeon warned a return to normality is still some way off.
She said there had been a significant fall in the number of coronavirus cases reported each day – down to 810 from 2,300 in early January – but with new infections only dropping to the same levels as early December, progress remains “fragile”.
The SNP leader warned any lifting of restrictions is likely to be at a slower rate than last summer and stressed even a slight easing could cause a rapid rise in cases.
She said the new roadmap “must be driven much more by data than by dates”.
“It will aim to set out how we will use and balance all the tools at our disposal – restrictions and advice, vaccination, test and protect, and travel restrictions – to restore, on a phased basis, greater normality to our everyday lives,” Ms Sturgeon said.
“It will set out as far as possible the conditions that we think need to be met, in terms of the data, for us to start lifting restrictions.
“It will detail the broad order of priority for reopening, including what a return to a geographic levels approach might look like in due course.”
The first minister confirmed the current “stay at home” lockdown “will remain in place until at least the beginning of March” and said ministers will be “extremely cautious” while unlocking measures put in place to help curb the spread of the virus.
A bitter blow for tourism
Ms Sturgeon gave only limited details of what the route ahead could look like but warned her government is “likely to advise against booking Easter holidays, either overseas or within Scotland”.
She said it was “highly unlikely” hotels or self-catering accommodation will be open over the next few months and said it was also unlikely overseas holidays would be possible in the summer but staycations could be possibility.
‘Still falling on deaf ears’
Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, said a revised framework for lifting lockdown is “long overdue” but said the first minister’s comments would come as a blow to the tourism sector.
“Hospitality businesses who might have been holding out hope for a small lifeline in the form of some limited, domestic tourist trade come Easter will be bitterly disappointed,” she said.
“The fact they will have invested so much in making premises safe and risk catastrophe without being able to trade is still falling on deaf ears.”
The first minister was able to confirm that schools will reopen to all primary pupils in the youngest three years groups from Monday, as well as some older years children for essential practical work.
What matters most
Announcing the decision to MSPs, Ms Sturgeon said the need to assess the impact of the change means it is unlikely there will be any further return for pupils before March 15, and “trade-offs” will need to be made in other areas of society.
“In a world where we can’t do everything immediately, we will need to decide what matters most to us,” she said.
“We are very deliberately choosing to use the very limited headroom we have right now to get at least some children back to school because children’s education and well-being is such an overriding priority.
“But being able to get children back to education may mean the rest of us living with some other restrictions for longer. And that is a trade-off we need to be willing to make at this stage.
“And also, if we want to return as much normality as we can to life within Scotland, the need to live for a longer period with significant restrictions on our ability to travel overseas is likely to be inescapable.
“What matters most is a question we will have to ask ourselves in the weeks ahead.”
At-home testing kits will be provided to senior phase pupils, teachers and school staff when they do return, Ms Sturgeon said, and secondary pupils will need to follow two-metres distancing rules.
Scottish Conservative Holyrood leader Ruth Davidson said it was “very welcome news” that schools could start opening again safely.
However, she said that “to get us even closer to normality, we need to get all key workers vaccinated as early as we can”, adding that the government’s plans are “short on detail”.
Ms Davidson urged ministers to publish plans for helping pupils catch up with schooling they have missed during the pandemic, which she said should be built around a national tutoring service to stop the attainment gap growing further.