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Professor Jason Leitch defends schools moves as Covid numbers rise

Perth High Street.
Perth High Street.

The Scottish Government has defended its policy on schools and the shut-down of hospitality during the second wave of the pandemic.

National clinical director Professor Jason Leitch told MSPs on Wednesday advising cabinet in March to close schools was one of the worst things he or Public Health Scotland had to do.

The dentist — who has become one of the faces of the pandemic, regularly featuring in the First Minister’s daily briefing, information adverts — was speaking to the Scottish Parliament’s Covid-19 committee on Wednesday morning.

He said the science still could not tell where people have caught the virus from and the majority of pupils were unlikely to spread the disease because of their age.

It comes as around 400 pupils at Auchmuty High School in Glenrothes, Fife, are currently self-isolating because of a number of positive coronavirus cases.

Coronavirus outbreak at Glenrothes schools sees around half its pupils absent, as new cases emerge at Fife and Tayside schools

He said: “As a result of that question about transmission, Public Health Scotland has done a study with 12 to 15-year-olds.

“You cannot tell where people have caught the virus. But that age group who have caught the virus is proportionately smaller than in other groups.

Professor Jason Leitch.

“It gets more difficult at 16-17  years old, when they are a bit more adult like.

“Of course, there will be adults who will spread the virus to others and we have to be very careful about that.

“We are making efforts to keep schools open as much as we possibly can.

“We did not like advising having to close them. As cases rise, they will rise in schools, but the best way to get school transmission down is to get community transmission down.”

Cabinet secretary Mike Russell, also appearing before the committee, added it was the Scottish Government’s priority to keep schools open, saying keeping a relative “normality” for the country’s young people’s physical and mental health.

Clarity needed on international travel rules

During the committee meeting, Mr Russell was quizzed on how the upcoming travel ban would be enforced.

Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie asked if international travel would be made illegal, with Mr Russell responding the issue would not.

Willie Rennie MSP

The cabinet secretary did clarify that police could prosecute anyone travelling to an airport in a restricted area, including Glasgow.

Responding to Mr Russell’s evidence after the meeting, North East Fife MSP Mr Rennie said: “I don’t think he could quite believe what was coming out of his mouth. International travel isn’t banned but local travel to the airport is. It doesn’t make much sense.

“In England there is a non-essential international travel ban so it’s puzzling why this has not been applied in Scotland, if that is what the Scottish Government wishes to do.

“According to the minister, Fifers will be banned from crossing the bridge to get to Edinburgh Airport, but not from boarding an airplane to travel abroad.

Edinburgh Airport.

“This makes a real difference to people who have long-booked holidays. If international travel is not illegal, the holidays may not be cancelled so the customers will not get refunds. We need clarity.”

Catastrophe warnings from hospitality experts

Business and hospitality representatives warned of dire futures faced by the industry in Scotland without adequate support.

Willie Macleod, executive director of  UK Hospitality (Scotland), warned 50,000 jobs in the sector were at risk as swathes of the country head into level four.

Dr Liz Cameron.

Mr Macleod added that restrictions on travel would be negative for businesses in other, lower tier levels and that the “burden” of compliance should be on individuals visiting, rather than the hospitality business.

Dr Liz Cameron, of the Scottish Chamber of Commerce, said they would prefer the travel restrictions are given as “guidance”, rather than them being enforced.

She further questioned why cafes and bars had to close when, she said, household transmission was the main reason why the virus was spreading.

Dr Cameron said the chamber is fully behind initiatives to keep people safe, but wants acknowledgement of the millions already invested by business when restrictions were last lifted.

Even ‘cafe culture France’ has closed

Professor Leitch acknowledged the threats posed to the economy, but noted the biggest threat to financial viability was still the virus.

He said: “The worst thing for the economy is to not control the virus. If it gets out of control, you damage the economy and you damage mental health more.

“We have to reduce the harm of the virus and get the prevalence down.

“Scotland has done well but it is not a competition. Nobody has ever had to do this before, that’s why it is difficult.

“No country in the world has chosen to keep hospitality open as prevalence rises. In France, with its cafe culture, it has shut it down and gone further.

“In Italy you cannot leave your home without written evidence (permitting) why.”

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