Easing the lockdown now would be catastrophic

The Coronavirus pandemic is a massive challenge for all of us – and without question the biggest I have faced in the five and a half years I have been privileged to serve as First Minister.

And today, like every day since we entered these difficult times, it is my responsibility to take the judgments that I think are right for keeping Scotland safe.

We are making real progress in tackling the pandemic – but that progress is fragile and could all too easily be undone.

That is why I am reiterating, in the strongest possible way, that the message to people here in Scotland remains Stay at Home – unless you have to go out for food, medicine, exercise or to do essential work that can’t be done at home.

The public have responded magnificently to that appeal over recent weeks but it is too soon to change that message.

The new slogan introduced by the Prime Minister for England, to “Stay Alert”, is, I am afraid to say, vague and imprecise, and dilutes the crystal clear call for people to remain at home.

Clarity of message is vital, and for that reason I have asked the UK government not to deploy their Stay Alert ad campaign in Scotland.

The rate of transmission of the virus in Scotland – the so-called R number – is still too high for any significant change to be safe at this stage. Indeed, the R number may be slightly higher in Scotland than in other parts of the UK.

That means we must be very careful – we must not squander the progress made by easing up too soon or by sending mixed messages that result in people thinking they can ease up now.

Let me be blunt about the consequences if we do that – more people will die and, instead of being able to loosen restrictions, we will be faced with having to tighten them. That is a risk we cannot afford to take.

Yesterday, I announced one change to the guidance here in Scotland which means that, from today, people will be able to leave home to exercise more than once a day, provided that they remain close to home and observe social distancing rules.

That does not apply to households where someone has symptoms of Covid-19, or to people who are in the shielded group. In those cases, people should still stay at home completely.

And for everybody, all the other current lockdown restrictions remain in place.

That means that although from today there is more freedom to exercise, that does not yet extend to outdoor leisure activities such as sunbathing, picnics or barbecues, or meeting up in groups at the park or the beach.

The advice remains to stay at home except for essential purposes such as exercise, or buying food or medicines; to stay more than two meters from other people and not to meet up with people from other households; to wear a face covering when in a shop or on public transport – and to isolate completely if you or someone else in your household has symptoms.

But we will continue to monitor things closely with a view to making further changes as soon as we can, as we hopefully see more evidence of a downward trend in the virus.

That will, I hope, allow us to extend the range of permissible outdoor activities. We will also consider whether garden centres can re-open; whether some additional forms of outdoor work can safely resume and will also be looking urgently – in close discussion with councils – at the possibility of reopening waste and recycling centres.

Beyond that we will continue to consider when and how more businesses can safely start to re-open, what changes will be required to public transport, and when and how children can start returning to school – but I do not expect that schools in Scotland will start to return as early as June 1st.

When it comes to the proposed moves by the UK Government for a period of quarantine for people travelling into the UK, that is something I have made it clear that I believe is vital to our efforts to contain the virus.

I have repeatedly made clear that I have no interest whatsoever in party politics when it comes to managing this crisis. My only guiding principle at all times is protecting public health and saving lives.

And that is the lens through which any emerging differences, however marginal, between Scotland and other parts of the UK must be seen.

It is perfectly consistent with an overall four-nations approach to have a pragmatic acceptance that we may move at different speeds if the evidence tells us that is necessary – and I believe we do now have that acceptance.

So I have zero interest in politicking around the Coronavirus pandemic, which is not a Scottish, British or European crisis, but a truly global one.

But I have every interest in protecting our NHS and saving lives here in Scotland. That is my duty as First Minister.

Quite simply, it would be catastrophic for me to drop the Stay at Home message here in Scotland at this point in time, and that is why I am not prepared to do it.