Nicola Sturgeon has ruled out a return to full lockdown when she unveils new coronavirus measures but warned such a decision could “bring into scope” tough restrictions for Scotland’s struggling hospitality industry.
The first minister confirmed she will announce “additional targeted steps” in a statement to the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday afternoon after her cabinet was unable to reach agreement on a way forward on Tuesday.
The SNP leader said it was clear action “over and above” the current arrangement was necessary to stem the spread of Covid-19 but insisted she is “not proposing another lockdown at this stage, not even on a temporary basis”.
Ms Sturgeon was unable to give specifics on what she plans to announce on Wednesday but said people will not be told to stay at home, as they were in March, schools will only close for the October holidays and there will be no national travel ban.
She said the Scottish Government was “not about to impose travel restrictions on the entire country” but did not rule out local travel restrictions or the possible closure of pubs and restaurants in areas with higher rates of the virus.
Speaking during her coronavirus briefing on Tuesday, Ms Sturgeon said Scotland was facing “the most difficult decision point yet” if it wanted to suppress the virus ahead of winter and admitted the wider harms of lockdown “weigh very heavily” on her.
She said the country was facing a “sharply rising rate of infection again” and she had to “strike a balance” between protecting public health and the wider costs of lockdown to the economy and people’s lives.
“We are not going to ask you to stay inside your own homes the way we did in March,” Ms Sturgeon said.
“And while we have been asking people to think carefully about non-essential travel, and while restrictions on travel may sometimes be an option and necessary for hotspot areas, we are not about to impose restrictions on the whole of the country.
“We are not about the shut down the whole economy or halt the remobilisation of the NHS. And apart from the October holidays, we are not proposing to close schools even partially.”
Two people died and a further 800 positive coronavirus tests were recorded overnight into Tuesday, representing 13.2% of those newly tested. The number of people in hospital increased by 44, while three more were in intensive care.
Ms Sturgeon said most parts of mainland Scotland now had infection levels higher than 50 cases per 100,000 people – recalling local restrictions were introduced in Aberdeen as infections reached 20 cases per 100,000.
She said it was her job to “carefully balance all of the different harms being done by the pandemic” including the “considerable harm” being done to jobs and the economy, and the wider harms to health and wellbeing.
But the first minister also gave her clearest indication yet that pubs and restaurants could face tighter controls. She said the list of measures being ruled out “does bring into scope” further restrictions in the hospitality industry.
People are banned from visiting other households under current rules but can meet one other household, up to a maximum of six people, in pubs, restaurants and cafes.
The prospect of further restrictions on pubs is filling our sector with complete dread.”
SPBA CEO Emma McClarkin
Ms Sturgeon said she was aware pubs and restaurants “are the kind of places we come into contact with other people”.
“We have already tried to act on one of the biggest risk factors, and the toughest thing I think we will ever do, of asking people not to visit others’ houses,” she said.
“If we’re not sure that’s enough, we have to look at the other settings in which people are more likely to come together – where they’re most likely to be coming into contact with large groups of other people where they could be passing it on.”
The most difficult decision point yet
Business leaders have written to the first minister urging her to outline the support the Scottish Government will provide to firms when new national or local coronavirus restrictions are announced.
The Scottish Beer and Pub Association warned thousands of jobs will be put at risk if more restrictions are implemented without consultation, notice and additional economic support for the sector.
CEO Emma McClarkin said the prospect of further restrictions was “filling our sector with complete dread” and across Scotland many pub operators would be “unable to sleep for fear of what will happen to their business and their staff”.
“If the Scottish Government is to implement further harsh restrictive measures to our sector, it must include a dedicated package of support alongside it,” she said.
“Without it the Scottish Government will leave our pubs and thousands of jobs doomed to failure.”
Andrew McRae, from the Federation of Small Businesses, warned new restrictions, however temporary, could increase the number of permanent closures.
He said: “Ministers need to understand that new coronavirus restrictions will take a huge toll on Scotland’s small business community. Many Scottish independent firms’ reserves and credit lines are close to exhaustion.
“The bare minimum that those in business expect is for the Scottish Government to set out their new package of help at the same time as they detail any new restrictions.”