We must take a careful and cautious approach as we get through this crisis together

In April the Scottish government published our framework for decision making, setting out the factors and principles we would take into account when deciding to ease any of the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions.

In doing so, we recognised that in addition to the immediate risk to health that COVID-19 entails, there are wider harms which come from the necessary but very restrictive measures we have taken to tackle the pandemic.

Our difficult challenge as we move forward is to mitigate all of these harms as much as we possibly can.

We recognise that the lockdown measures, whilst absolutely necessary to save lives and protect the capacity of our NHS, are in themselves having a serious and negative impact on health more generally.

For example, the steps we had to take to mobilise our health and social care services to an unprecedented degree to respond to COVID-19 involved postponing other forms care and treatment.

This will have involved many people suffering unavoidable delays to hospital operations and consultations. That’s why we are now working hard to get NHS services restarted as quickly and safely as possible.

The lockdown has done damage to our lives in other ways too, including, for example, the negative effects of increased isolation and loneliness, particularly for those living alone, and the impact on children’s education and general wellbeing that comes from schools being closed.

And the virus and the steps we are taking to tackle it are also having a devastating impact on our economy. We know that this will have serious consequences for jobs and living standards.

That’s why we are determined to do everything we can to support business in the months ahead.

A paper published by the Scottish Government’s chief economist last week demonstrated the scale of the economic impact and the long road to recovery that lies ahead of us.

Not surprisingly, given the lockdown, economic activity in April was at a historic low. Around 19 per cent of businesses were closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and unemployment is already rising from its previously low levels.

Unfortunately, it is likely to continue to rise as the impact of lockdown is felt in the labour market.

However, the report also outlined how government support has helped to mitigate the very worst economic effects of the virus.

We have worked as hard as possible to provide support to businesses through this crisis and we will continue to do so.

So far, we have made £2.3 billion of support available – and that is in addition to very welcome UK government initiatives, such as the Job Retention Scheme.

Support for businesses will be critical – not just in this immediate term, but right throughout the recovery phase.

We need to work with business to ensure that they can restart safely, and that they have the right support to protect jobs.

In short, we must ensure that the severe effects of this economic crisis are kept to a minimum.

I would like to thank all those who closed their businesses to help deal with the pandemic. I don’t underestimate how difficult it has been, but it has saved lives.

I also appreciate that businesses are now anxious to reopen. But it is vital that we don’t act at a pace that allows the virus to spread out of control again.

So I appeal for patience – but also give a guarantee that no business will be forced to stay closed for any longer than is absolutely necessary to continue to suppress the virus and save lives.

The challenge for us now is to continue to suppress the virus whilst also moving towards a gradual lifting of restrictions so that we can restart the economy safely and allow businesses to operate again – even if many have to do so differently to allow for physical distancing.

Although the decisions on if, when, and how to ease restrictions must be made by government, they cannot be made in isolation.

We are listening to the best scientific advice and we are working very closely with businesses in all sectors of Scotland’s economy, as well as representative organisations and trade unions.

We have taken a collaborative approach to the development of guidance on safe working for construction, retail, and manufacturing, and we are working in the same way with tourism, creative industries and events.

There is an unprecedented worldwide effort on scientific research and development to find treatments and a vaccine – and some of that work is happening in Scotland, at the University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research.

However, the reality is that until those advances are made we need to learn to live with this virus, possibly for some time to come.

We must take a careful and cautious approach that seeks to protect life and reduce harm, and ultimately provide us with a stronger footing for the long-term health and stability of our economy.

This is a momentous challenge, but just as we went into this crisis together, we must work hard to come through it together – providing support to those who need it most.

This article was originally published in the Glasgow Evening Times.