Scots could be prosecuted for leaving their homes without good reason from today as the nation was warned that up 50,000 people across the country could already be infected with coronavirus.
Chief medical officer Dr Catherine Calderwood has said an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 Scots could have contracted covid-19 already – and many of them are unaware they have it.
It comes as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said police powers to enforce new social distancing rules could come into effect as early as Thursday (March 26).
It means businesses in breach of social distancing rules could be forced to close and people found leaving their homes for anything other than a “reasonable purpose” may be fined or face prosecution.
From Monday, Scots were told only to leave their properties for vital shopping, a daily exercise, to provide medical care, or to travel to and from essential work.
Ms Sturgeon also revealed that some 1.5 million facemasks – thought to have expired in 2019 – have been checked by top health experts and cleared for use. They are now being distributed to health boards.
Speaking at a press conference in Edinburgh on Thursday, the SNP leader said: “The Coronavirus Bill was passed by UK parliament yesterday and gained royal assent yesterday. The Scottish Government now has the power to make regulations to enforce the social distancing measures that we announced on Monday.
— Scottish Government (@scotgov) March 26, 2020
“We are now preparing regulations to give police in Scotland enforcement powers.
“We expect these to be in force as soon as possible perhaps as early as today.
“The regulations give us the power to enforce rules which most people are now following anyway and I want to thank people across the country for their compliance.
“These enforcement powers I hope don’t have to be used but they are there to make sure the right things can be done to delay the spread of this virus.”
She added they will give police “powers to require the closure of listed businesses and premises” and will “help to ensure that social distancing is enforced by businesses and premises which are able to continue operating”.
She added police will also be able to clamp down on anyone found outside for anything other “a reasonable purpose”.
She said they will “help to enforce the rule that there should be no public gatherings of more than two people except where these are two people from the same household”.
“Those found not to be acting in line with the regulations can be directed to return home or made to return home,” Ms Sturgeon added.
“They can also be subject to prohibition notices and, if people don’t follow prohibition notices or instructions to return home, they could be liable to an on-the-spot fine or, if necessary, prosecution.”
She said she expects the “vast majority of people to do the right thing without requirement for enforcement”.
Ms Sturgeon added: “Police will continue to take a soft approach to enforcement but they will have the power to act if that is deemed necessary.”
She said the rules were “unusual and out of character” but will come with “very important safeguards”.
The regulations will be reviewed every 21 days with the legislation lasting for a maximum of just six months.
Ms Sturgeon added: “We will act to remove these restrictions as soon as it is safe to do so.”
The country’s death toll has also reached 25 with 57 people now in intensive care after contracting the virus.
Dr Calderwod added: “We have seen in Scotland the number of confirmed cases rise and once again the number of deaths has risen.”
She warned the latest figures for Scotland, showing almost 900 people have tested positive for covid-19, are a “very significant underestimate”.
She said: “We are probably looking at the order of 40,000-50,000 people in Scotland who are now infected with coronavirus.
“Many of them don’t yet know they are infected nor indeed do they realise they are potentially going to infect those around them.
“It has been very encouraging to see the empty streets and the empty shops and the empty transport in Scotland.
“This is going to be a long haul.”
She told Scots that the coming weekend will be “unlike other you’ve ever experienced”.
Dr Calderwood warned Scots to “not relax those rules” in the coming days.
“The virus is out there,” she added.
“You don’t know who has it. Stay away from as many people as possible.”
She added: “We still remain behind particularly London but also behind other parts of England as to the number of cases and that pressure on the NHS – both acute beds and intensive care beds.
“We have perhaps put these suppression measures in earlier on that up-slope of the curve and what we hope is therefore is that that rapid acceleration is perhaps not as rapid as has been seen in other parts of the country.
“It is not that I am saying it is not going to be rapid. But perhaps not as rapid particularly when we have got good compliance with these suppression measures.”
1.5 million facemasks ‘safe and valid’
Health secretary Jeane Freeman told the press conference that the 1.5 million respirator facemasks being made available to NHS staff have been “individually tested” and approved as “safe and valid”.
They were approved by the Health and Safety Executive, Health Protection Scotland, Dr Calderwood and Dr Miles Mack of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges and Faculties in Scotland.
Ms Freeman said: “Those masks had expiry dates of June and August 2019 which is why we had not released them until now.
“We had them independently tested in order to ensure that they remain safe and valid.
“They will be now issued across those parts of our health service where they are the appropriate protection for staff to use.”
She added the Scottish Government is “paying very closed and detailed attention to the overall stock of PPE (personal protective equipment) for health and social care staff”.
She said: “We have now taken over the ordering and supply of distribution of PPE to social care and care-at-home staff and are looking daily at not only the ordering but also what is the pipeline.
“As of today we have no shortages in those area.
“We are increasing the distribution routes and networks in order to ensure that the supplies that people need get to where they are needed across the country, including in our remote and rural areas, as soon as possible.”