Return to life outside lockdown 'not on cards in near future' in Scotland, says Nicola Sturgeon

23 April 2020, 13:22

File photo: Nicola Sturgeon gave a press conference on the lockdown measures on Thursday
File photo: Nicola Sturgeon gave a press conference on the lockdown measures on Thursday. Picture: PA

By Megan White

Nicola Sturgeon has said a return to normal life with no coronavirus lockdown restrictions is “not on the cards in the near future,” with the chance some measures could be kept in place until next year.

The First Minister said that the Scottish Government was "increasingly confident" that measures put in place were helping to stop the spread of the virus but that we must “find a new normal” amid the outbreak.

Her comments came after Scotland’s death toll rose by 58 to 1,120 on Thursday, with 9,409 confirmed cases.

Discussing a paper published on Thursday on how Scotland will remove lockdown regulations, the First Minister said the "science will never be exact" and the Scottish Government will have to make judgments on any measures added or lifted.

She said discussions are at a "very early stage" regarding schools, and said "redesigning classrooms" was an option to be considered, adding: "There will potentially be an area where schools aren't exactly closed but also not open as normal".

The First Minister also said it was likely that people could be asked to wear face coverings in public in "limited circumstances," but that she doesn't want "to overstate the impact" of them and is looking to issue guidance in coming days.

Ms Sturgeon also spoke exclusively to Heart on Wednesday, saying there's "always light at the end of the tunnel" but that she didn't want to give the public "false expectations" about when the lockdown would end.

Asked what a relaxing of the measures could look like, she said: "Well, it’s hard to be absolutely definitive about this right now.

"So firstly, before we can start to ease anything right now we need much more evidence that this virus is under control, but it’s never going to be eradicated, so the danger is as we start to ease things, it runs out of control again, so it’s always going to be a careful balance.

"And as we ease things, let people go out a bit more, maybe let some businesses start to open up again, we’re going to have to continue to do things like keep a safe social distance.

"So for example – and don’t read into this that these are firm decisions - but if a business can open up again, it may only be if they can still manage to keep their workforce two metres apart.

"Even schools, we talk about schools being closed and then open again, it might not be that binary.

"We might have kids going back to school for certain days a week, we may have to have, you know, children in a classroom so that we can have social distancing. These are all the things that we have to think through.

"We may still ask people to not mix as much with other households as they will have done previously. Big events I don’t think are going to be possible for quite some time to come. So these are the kind of things.

"Coupled with that, if we can get the virus to much lower levels than it’s at just now, we then start much more comprehensively – if somebody has symptoms, you test them, you make sure you trace all the people they’ve been in contact with, isolate them so we’re cutting off the routes of transmission. So that’s the kind of things that we’re going to have to do."

The First Minister said that the Scottish Government cannot rule out the possibility of re-applying or strengthening current lockdown measures if cases of the virus grow.

However, Ms Sturgeon said she would be "frank" with the people of Scotland about what the Scottish Government's thinking is.

She said: "As we start to lift the restrictions, the real risk is that Covid-19 runs rampant again.

"So a return to normal as we knew it is not on the cards in the near future and it's really important that I am upfront with you about that.

"What we must do is find a new normal, a way of living alongside this virus but in a form that keeps it under control and stops it taking the toll we know it can do."

Ms Sturgeon added: "That means, possibly for the rest of this year and maybe even beyond.

"That's why talking about lifting lockdown as if it's a 'flick of the switch moment', is misguided.

"Our steps, when we take them, will need to be careful, gradual, incremental and probably quite small to start with.

"We'll need to assess them in advance and monitor them in action - sometimes, as I said a moment ago, we may even have to reverse things."

In her interview with Heart, Ms Sturgeon added: "Firstly, there is hope right now. The figures that we’re publishing every day - it’s hard to find this hope when we’re still announcing lots of people having died – but every day, for the last week or so, the figures I’ve been announcing every day for people in intensive care have been reducing.

"The number of people being admitted to hospital – it’s fluctuating still a bit on a daily basis – but the trend is downwards in that.

"Now what does that say? If fewer people are going into hospital and fewer people are going into intensive care, that actually means fewer people are getting this virus.

"So everything we’re doing just now is working but progress is fragile and we need to keep at it because it very quickly could go into reverse.

But she continued: "The second thing that is difficult – and you’re going to hear me talking more about this in the days ahead – when we do start to get back to normal, because we need to restore some kind of normality as soon as we can - the lockdown has its own consequences, we’ve touched on some of them already.

"We’re not going to quickly go back to normal as we know it. We’re going to have to live with this virus for quite a while, probably until there’s a vaccine developed for it.

"That will mean that even as we lift some of these more restrictive measures – things like social distancing, limiting the number of people we’re coming into contact with – that kind of thing is going to be with us for quite some time to come, so it’s a new normal that we’re going to have to get used to over the weeks to come."

The First Minister also said that the reproduction rate of the virus must be kept below one, with best estimates putting the figures "somewhere between 0.6 and one".

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She said the Scottish Government would also work with the rest of the UK, as well as learn from international examples.

The First Minister described the lockdown measures as "the toughest set of circumstances that the vast majority of us have ever lived through".

She added: "I can't stand here and promise you that it's going to get a whole lot easier soon.

"But as I hope we have started to set out today, if we keep doing the right things and if we consider all of the options carefully and with the right objectives in mind, I do believe there will be a way through and we will find that way through."

Ms Sturgeon also said the lockdown measures were doing "damage" to Scotland, with problems are being seen in business, education and living standards.

The First Minister added: "As we do so, we cannot and we must not take our eye off the need to suppress the virus and minimise the damage that it does.

"Continuing to suppress Covid-19 is the central objective that we've set out in this paper today.

During her Heart interview, Ms Sturgeon also gave a message of hope for the people of Scotland, telling listeners: "Well, firstly thank you so much, we are seeing progress now and we see it every day and it’s only because of what you’re all doing and the tough things that you’re all doing, so from the bottom of my heart, thank you and we will get through this.

"We’ll get through this together, we will get through this with as much collective endeavour as possible, there’ll be some tough times ahead we might never go back to exactly how life was before, but we will get through it.

"Perhaps in some ways, we’ll get through it and be better as individuals and as a society than we were before, so stick with it and know that there is light at the end of the tunnel."

A Government spokesman sought to play down any suggestion that the Scottish Government was taking a different approach to the rest of the UK.

"As far as I am aware, the Scottish Government have stressed that they want to continue to operate within a four nations, UK framework and align any decisions that are taken as far as possible," the spokesman said.