Mainland Scotland will not move down to the lowest level of Covid restrictions for at least five weeks, Nicola Sturgeon has disclosed as she delayed once more the easing of lockdown.
The First Minister said her original plan for the country to move to Level 0 of her five-tier system on June 28 would be postponed by three weeks so more people could be vaccinated.
However, her official spokesman later confirmed the new July 19 target – the same date chosen by Boris Johnson to lift all restrictions in England – could be delayed again in some areas if Ms Sturgeon deemed it too risky.
The First Minister appeared to slap down a warning by Jason Leitch, Scotland’s national clinical director, that the Indian variant had pushed back the unlocking timetable by eight to 10 weeks, potentially until September. Instead she told the Scottish Parliament she hoped the country could "move beyond Level 0" later in the summer.
This could involve the removal of social distancing, which is the subject of a separate review being published next week. Ms Sturgeon also disclosed her government was examining whether the requirement for school pupils to self-isolate for 10 days if there are Covid cases in their class could be "significantly reduced in future".
Blaming the postponement of her lockdown timetable on the UK Government, she said there was "no doubt at all" that lax UK border controls contributed to the rise of the Indian variant. The First Minister said the failure to introduce tougher rules was "deeply frustrating" and suggested the country was now "paying a price" for it.
Jason Leitch's comments were backed by the Scottish Conservatives
But Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, said Ms Sturgeon and Prof Leitch "don’t seem to be on the same page over the easing of restrictions" and expressed disappointment about the lack of "further hope or information" for businesses or couples wanting to get married.
Liz Cameron, the chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce said the further delay to July 19 "will be frustrating and painful for many Scottish businesses who were gearing up to make the most of a boom in summer trade over the coming weeks".
All of mainland Scotland was originally scheduled to move from Level 2 to Level 1 earlier this month but Ms Sturgeon postponed the shift for 14 council areas covering nearly all the Central Belt and more than half the population. She told MSPs on Tuesday that Covid cases had risen by more than a fifth in the past week and were now more than five times higher than in early May.
The entire adult population will have been offered an appointment for a first dose of the vaccine by the end of next week but scientists have warned two doses are needed to provide substantial protection against the Indian variant.
Ms Sturgeon confirmed no changes would be made to the tiers of restrictions this week and "it is reasonable to indicate now that I think it unlikely that any part of the country will move down a level from June 28".
"Instead, it is likely that we will opt to maintain restrictions for a further three weeks from 28 June and use that time to vaccinate – with both doses – as many more people as possible," she said.
"Doing that will give us the best chance, later in July, of getting back on track and restoring the much greater normality that we all crave."
Ms Sturgeon promised to review "perceived anomalies" around her rules amid intense anger among parents that they are banned from attending nursery graduations while thousands of football fans gather in Glasgow.
Two reviews will be published next week on removing physical distancing and life beyond Level 0 when "we get to the point where we can lift all, or virtually all, of the remaining restrictions".
Attacking the UK Government’s refusal to introduce hotel quarantine earlier this year for international arrivals from all countries, she said: "The lack of very robust border controls in recent months has, I think has been a factor in the situation that we’re dealing with right now and that is deeply frustrating we are where we are."
But Dr Cameron said: "A delay next week will dampen hopes for many businesses, particularly for those sectors that remain closed and may be forced to wait even longer to reopen, placing them and the jobs they support at risk."
Fiona Campbell, chief executive of the Association of Scotland’s Self-Caterers, said: "The First Minister’s statement is incredibly disappointing to many involved in the Scottish tourism sector.
“Self-caterers across Scotland, especially those operating larger properties currently impacted by household meeting restrictions, face the real possibility of irreversible damage being done to their businesses as lockdown easing will be delayed well into July."
On-the-spot Nicola picks fight with her own professor
When Mr and Mrs Joe Public are quite rightly feeling a bit down thanks to the increasingly gloomy prognostications from their elected politicians about how there seems to be no end to Covid restrictions, the last thing they need is an added bit of freelance gloom from an adviser, writes Alan Cochrane.
Perhaps not surprisingly that appeared to be Nicola Sturgeon’s view, too, on Tuesday, even if she had a strange way of showing it.
At her regular Holyrood update on how we’re coping with the pandemic, the First Minister took umbrage at Tory leader Douglas Ross’s accusation that with people feeling increasingly "scunnered" at the continued restrictions what they didn’t want to hear was La Sturgeon saying that they could last until September … that would really be adding insult to injury.
She then proceeded to lecture Mr Ross for putting words into her mouth about how we were due for something like a 10-week delay before we might enjoy some respite from all the rules and regulations brought in to beat Covid and all because of the Indian, or Delta, variant.
The trouble was that the words Ms Sturgeon objected to were not Mr Ross’s – he had been quoting, pretty much verbatim, statements reported in several newspapers and heard on radio, that had been uttered by none other than Jason Leitch, the Scottish Government’s national clinical director, and one of the First Minister’s closest advisers: in fact they’re often a double act at press conferences.
However, her sentiment was absolutely correct that the last thing a beleaguered populace needs at this time, when their hopes of a supposed "freedom" are being continually dashed, is for someone to rub it in.
But the trouble is she picked the wrong target. What Professor Leitch – and not Mr Ross – had said was that the "horrid" Delta variant had pushed back progress towards the easing of restrictions by up to 10 weeks, meaning that anything approaching normality could be delayed as late as September.
The professor said that there was a momentum behind the vaccine rollout but added: "I don’t think we will be normal by August."
Now, in more than a year of watching and listening to the man who’s arguably the First Minister’s closest adviser it’s pretty clear to this observer that his view of a given situation is seldom very different from his boss’s.
Which, of course, begs the question: Was the Sturgeon-tirade against Mr Ross a genuine mistake in that she misheard the Tory leader? No, that doesn’t seem at all likely. Was she simply embarrassed that what he was reported to have said about a September end to our misery was too close for comfort to her own view of the situation. Maybe.
Or was she giving the prof a dressing down, albeit at one remove? That’s certainly a possibility, given that it wouldn’t have been the first time that he’s let his love of the limelight and his penchant for using several phrases, when one would have done, get the better of him.
The fast spread of the Delta variant and the fact that it’s currently outpacing the vaccine rollout has surprised everyone and is not a comfortable place to be for a politician like Nicola Sturgeon who’s always erred on the side of caution and of retaining control to make sure of victory.
However, I wonder if she’ll now demand "a period of silence" from her clinical director, even if for reasons of her own she put his words in the mouth of the Tory leader.