Further restrictions may be introduced to tackle a growing Perthshire coronavirus outbreak, Nicola Sturgeon has warned, as she pumped the brakes on Scotland’s route out of lockdown for at least another three weeks.
The first minister said new measures to tackle a cluster linked to the 2 Sisters food processing plant in Coupar Angus were being “carefully and urgently” considered.
The number of cases associated with the chicken factory has now risen to 43, an increase of 14 since Wednesday, with 37 cases in the “significant” cluster being linked to employees and six more to their immediate contacts.
Scotland registered 77 new cases new laboratory-confirmed cases of Covid-19 overnight, the highest number in almost three months, and Ms Sturgeon confirmed 27 of these had been recorded in the NHS Tayside health board area.
There were also 12 new cases in NHS Grampian, bringing the total identified in the health board area to 407 since July 26 – 237 of them associated with the cluster linked to Aberdeen pubs.
The first minister said the number of cases linked to the Coupar Angus outbreak will “almost certainly grow” and she stressed the importance of testing all workers.
“Given the nature and potential scale of this outbreak, we are considering carefully and urgently whether further restrictions are necessary,” she said.
A meeting of the Scottish government’s resilience committee is expected to discuss possible measures as the factory’s 900 workers self-isolate at home following its closure on Sunday night.
In an update to the Scottish Parliament on Thursday, Ms Sturgeon said she was unable to move on to the next stage of exiting lockdown because lifting measures at this stage could allow the virus to “run away from us”.
“I am not able to indicate today a move from phase three of our route map out of lockdown to phase four,” the SNP leader said.
“We will remain, for now, in phase three and I must give notice today that this may well be the case beyond the next review point too.
“For us to move to phase four, we would have to be satisfied that the virus is no longer considered a significant threat to public health.
“As today’s figures have demonstrated, and as has been confirmed to me in advice from the chief medical officer, this is definitely not the case.”
The Scottish Government’s latest modelling appears to show the R number – the average number of people infected by each person – has increased, with most recent estimates suggesting it could now be above one.
The R number being below one was previously seen as a critical factor for easing lockdown restrictions because scientists believe any higher number could indicate the virus is spreading exponentially.
Despite the increase, Ms Sturgeon confirmed some changes will still go ahead, including the resumption of driving lessons, some outdoor live events, organised outdoor contact sports from August 24 for people of all ages.
Gyms will be able to reopen from August 31 and Ms Sturgeon said she hoped large sports venues will be able to reopen from September 14, signalling a possible return of spectators to top level sport.
She also hoped that from September 14 indoor contact sports activities for those aged 12 and over would be able to resume, and that weddings, civil partnerships and funerals will be able to take place with more people in attendance.
The first minister was unable to give a date for the reopening of non-essential offices and said home working would remain the “default position” for now.
Police Scotland will be given new powers to break up and disperse house parties amid growing concerns about links between large indoor gatherings and the spread of the virus.
An outbreak in Aberdeen that led to Scotland’s first local lockdown two weeks ago has been linked to pubs and bars, and Ms Sturgeon said the Scottish Government had considered carefully what steps could be taken.
The first minister said the powers would only be used as a “last resort” where there was a “flagrant” breach of the rules but insisted such measures were necessary because gatherings pose a “real and significant risk of causing clusters and outbreaks”.
The new regulations are expected come into force next Friday.
Local authorities will also be given new powers to close pubs and cafes that do not comply with Covid-19 regulations or impose special measures on owners.