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Scottish Government feels the heat on coronavirus restrictions affecting gyms, places of worship and funerals

Michael Russell indicated that the SNP administration would be prepared to negotiate further (Office of the First Minister of Scotland/PA)
Michael Russell indicated that the SNP administration would be prepared to negotiate further (Office of the First Minister of Scotland/PA)

A senior figure in Nicola Sturgeon’s government refused to be drawn on compensating gym owners as his opponents criticised the reopening of pubs before indoor exercise facilities.

Constitution Secretary Michael Russell said he had “nothing to say” on the issue when he was warned that the livelihoods of gym operators were at stake.

Michael Russell.

Mr Russell was challenged when he represented the Scottish Government in front of Holyrood’s Covid-19 Committee.

Opposition MSPs were angered that Scottish gyms remained closed while those south of the border have been allowed to reopen.

There was also frustration that numbers allowed to attend ceremonies in places of worship had been capped at 50, with Professor Adam Tomkins of the Tories describing the restriction as “arbitrary, whimsical and unfair”.

And when asked why numbers at funerals had been limited to 20, Mr Russell revealed there were concerns social distancing would break down given the emotional nature of such events.

Russell asked: why are pubs open and gyms closed?

Professor Tomkins asked Mr Russell to explain why it was “coherent” for pubs to be open before gyms, arguing two-metre social distancing could be observed while exercising indoors.

Mr Russell replied that a judgement had been made on a “complex jigsaw of activities”, pointing out that to compare pubs with gyms was to compare two very different activities.

He said the reuse of gym equipment could contribute to the spread of the virus and that was “more risky” than sitting at a table two metres apart.

Professor Tomkins asked the minister what compensation packages were being put in place to help gym owners who were suffering during their “extended lockdown”.

I want you to tell me, so I can tell my constituents, what financial package of compensation you are putting in place to compensate people who are losing their livelihoods because of decisions you are making.”

Tory MSP Adam Tomkins

Mr Russell replied that fellow ministers Finance Secretary Kate Forbes and Economy Secretary Fiona Hyslop would keep the matter “constantly under review”.

But he added: “I have nothing to announce or say today about compensation in any sector. But of course these things are under review.”

Professor Tomkins complained that Mr Russell’s response was “plainly not satisfactory” and called for a direct answer.

“You are extending the lockdown of gyms in Scotland beyond the lockdown in England or south of the border and I want you to tell me, so I can tell my constituents, what financial package of compensation you are putting in place to compensate people who are losing their livelihoods because of decisions you are making,” Professor Tomkins said.

Disappointment at restricted congregations

Earlier Professor Tomkins asked why congregations were limited to 50 at Sunday services, arguing that larger churches could cope with more worshippers.

The Tory MSP also pointed out that larger numbers were accommodated in shops, where social distancing measures had been put in place.

“We don’t have the same approach to retail,” Professor Tomkins said. “Each shop has calculated, for its own shape and size, the safe number of people that can be permitted into that shop at any one time. Do that with shops, why not do that in churches?”

Mr Russell said faith communities had been consulted when the guidance was drawn up and disputed Professor Tomkins’s suggestion that the human rights of individuals to “manifest their faith” were under threat.

The Constitution Secretary added: “There is a necessary compromise being reached as a result of a highly dangerous situation.”

The reason why funerals cannot have more than 20 mourners

Green MSP Ross Greer said the public would “struggle to understand” why someone could attend a service with 49 others on a Sunday but funerals were limited to gatherings of 20.

Mr Russell said: “There is a degree of emotionalism, inevitably, at funerals which may lead to a break down, of some sort, in social distancing. We have actually seen this in regrettable instances.”

He acknowledged the restriction was “difficult to accept” but argued it was justified on public health grounds.

Earlier Mr Russell had said it was “crucial” that pubs and restaurants gathered contact details of their customers, saying they were needed for the test and protect strategy.

After Banffshire and Buchan Coast MSP Stewart Stevenson expressed concern that some pubs were not being assiduous enough, Mr Russell said: “It is very important this does happen. If it does not happen it puts people’s lives at risk.”

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