Aberdeen’s local lockdown will remain in place for at least another week, as Nicola Sturgeon insisted it was “not yet safe” to lift the restrictions imposed in the city.
The first minister defied Aberdeen City Council leaders, who want to relax the measures on the grounds that shutting down the hospitality industry is harming the economy and risking jobs.
At her daily coronavirus briefing, Ms Sturgeon said the situation would be reviewed again on Sunday and it was hoped it will be possible to lift restrictions for “lower-risk premises” like cafes that don’t sell alcohol from next Wednesday.
Although there was evidence the cluster associated with the city’s nightlife was “being contained”, there was concern about the relatively high number of cases that could not be linked to the pubs outbreak.
Therefore, the first minister had come to the “reluctant conclusion” that pubs, restaurants and cafes should remain shut and restrictions on household gatherings and travel stay in place for “a further week”.
We are not yet in a position to say that this outbreak is over or completely under control.”
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
Ms Sturgeon announced a £1 million support fund made available for businesses in Aberdeen, with grants of up to £1,500 available for firms in the hospitality sector that have had to shut.
But the decision to maintain the restrictions put her on a collision course with Aberdeen City Council co-leaders Jenny Laing and Douglas Lumsden, who warned the lockdown was damaging the city’s economy with 5,100 jobs at risk.
Councillors Laing and Lumsden argued that the local Incident Management Team believed the situation was under “adequate control” and measures could be put in place to allow lower-risk settings to open on Saturday.
But Ms Sturgeon pointed out that some elements of lockdown were still in place in Leicester six weeks after its outbreak, warning that easing the restrictions too quickly could spark an outbreak.
“I hope it will not need six weeks in Aberdeen But it is important to remember the cycle of this virus and the time it takes to give yourself certainty that it is under control and you are not immediately reigniting a cluster,” she said.
Ms Sturgeon said that 15 of the 50 new coronavirus cases recorded in the last 24 hours were in Grampian, a figure that was more than double the seven reported the day before.
In total 398 cases had been identified in Grampian since July 26, of which 226 cases were linked to the Aberdeen pubs cluster. The tracing system had identified 1,141 contacts from those from 226 cases.
“We are not yet in a position to say that this outbreak is over or completely under control,” Ms Sturgeon said, adding that there was concern about the “elevated” level of cases that were not associated with the hospitality cluster.
The latest figures suggested that the non-hospitality-related case number in Aberdeen was at a ratio of more than 20 per 100,000 population, compared with a Scottish average of just six.
Ms Sturgeon indicated that the number would have to fall below 20 before restrictions can be relaxed.
“Moving too quickly would, in our view, risk the hard-won progress that people in Aberdeen have made,” Ms Sturgeon said.
The first minister said she had confidence that the public would continue to comply with the constraints despite the council calling for swifter action. Ms Sturgeon said she “respectfully disagreed”. She had spoken with the councillors and described the situation as a difference of opinion over what she hoped would just be a few days.
But Councillors Laing and Lumsden expressed fears about the local economy.
Councillor Laing said: “At our meeting with Scottish Government officials yesterday we heard from the local Covid-19 Outbreak Incident Management Team that they believed the situation is now under adequate control and mitigation measures can be put in place to allow lower-risk settings to open on Saturday August 22, subject to site-specific assessments.
“I can confirm that the council is ready to make these site-specific assessments to allow businesses to open. It is apparent that Covid-19 has already had a significant impact on our local economy and continuing with the current restrictions is only going to make a bad economic situation even worse.
“The continued closure of restaurants, cafes and bars is hurting not just those businesses directly affected but it is having a serious impact on a number of other sectors, including retail, which has reported a 60% drop in footfall since the restrictions were introduced.
“The perception and reputation of Aberdeen is being damaged the longer this goes on and, as the Incident Management Team has shown, with proper safeguards in place Aberdeen can and should be allowed to begin lifting the restrictions on Saturday August 22.”
Councillor Lumsden said: “The Grampian Covid-19 Incident Management Team also proposed that the Statutory Restrictions on Movement and Statutory Restrictions on Gatherings should be removed on Saturday August 22, subject to ongoing epidemiological review. This was because the local Incident Management Team recognised there was no information to support an acceleration of Covid-19 incidence in vulnerable populations at risk of severe adverse disease outcomes.
“The First Minister must be aware of the harm extending the lockdown is doing to both our citizens and our economy. Evidence shows that Aberdeen has been disproportionately affected by Covid-19 and, using Pace notifications, it shows there are 5,100 jobs at risk of redundancy from 70 employers, across various sectors, including hospitality. This is the highest in Scotland, and three times the level of the second-ranked authority area (Aberdeenshire, 1,800 posts).”