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Nicola Sturgeon says lockdown easing may move more quickly

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

Scotland’s exit out of lockdown could be accelerated as virus cases drop, the first minister has outlined.

Nicola Sturgeon told MSPs the Scottish Government will consider in the next week if the easing of restrictions can be moved forward.

Delivering her latest Covid-19 statement in the Scottish Parliament, the first minister said all pupils will be given at least some in-school teaching between March 15 and the Easter break, before full-time schooling returns after the holidays.

Ms Sturgeon said that in light of the recent “much more encouraging” figures, the Scottish Government would be “considering if it might be possible to accelerate the exit from lockdown in any way”.

The move to bring secondary school pupils back in a blended fashion earlier than planned was described as the “latest SNP U-turn” by Ruth Davidson, Scottish Conservative leader at Holyrood.

She claimed the move came following “pressure” from her party and would be “welcomed by pupils, parents and teachers who know there is no substitute for learning in a classroom”.

Scotland lockdown
Scottish Conservative leader at Holyrood Ruth Davidson.

However, Ms Davidson described the first minister’s latest announcement as “typically vague”, arguing it “only prolongs uncertainty”.

Ms Sturgeon said she had tried to not give anyone “false promises” but she had reason to believe the exit from lockdown “might be quicker and come sooner” than was the case a few weeks ago.

The first minister told MSPs: “I have always said if we can go further and faster, then we will not hesitate to do so.

“All of us want to move on as quickly as possible and, as a priority, to see friends and family again. I hope that day is now not too far away.”

Problem ‘dumped on teachers’

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie claimed it was “perhaps unwise for the first minister to sneer at other governments making up dates when she has already changed the dates that she set out last week”.

He said Ms Sturgeon had made the “last-minute change” to school opening “without issuing any fresh guidance” and accused her of having “dumped the problem on teachers to fix”. 

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, Willie Rennie.

Mr Rennie added: “If two thirds of the class are at home teachers will need to juggle the competing demands and additional workload that will come with physical and online teaching.

“There are no more hours in the day, it is impossible to expect our teachers to perform miracles on a daily basis. Teachers are already exhausted.  This is not the way to reward them.”

‘Ploughing ahead’ with plans

Responding to the announcement on the further reopening of schools, Dr Patrick Roach, NASUWT General Secretary, said it is “absolutely essential” the government releases the evidence on which it is relying to make the recent announcement.

The teachers’ union said the Scottish Government “risks ploughing ahead with plans for returning pupils to school without ensuring that essential measures are in place to address concerns regarding safety and workload”.

He added: “Significant additional safety measures are still needed to respond to the Covid-19 threat in schools.”

All local authorities will, at least until Easter, continue to observe the current requirement for physical distancing in secondary schools with some of the £375 million education recovery funding being used to monitor and improve ventilation.

Wearing face coverings will also be mandatory, at all times, in secondary schools.

‘Serious questions’ remain

However, others, claimed the Scottish Government’s plans to get secondary school pupils back to the classroom are still “too slow”, amid claims pupils will be left at a disadvantage compared to those in England, who return on March 8.

UsForThem Scotland, which has more than 13,000 members, described the plan as an “extension of the chaotic and discredited blended learning” model.

Liam Kerr MSP.

Scottish Conservative north-east MSP Liam Kerr said “serious questions still remain unanswered from the Scottish Government”.

He said: “Teachers, parents and pupils still don’t know how much of the teaching will be blended/remote.

“Social distancing is also a major issue and there has been no clarification on how this will work when there is a full classroom”.

‘Encouraging figures’

The first minister updated MSPs on the latest figures, arguing there was “more reason to be optimistic now than perhaps at any time since early autumn last year”.

Scotland has recorded 33 deaths from coronavirus and 542 positive tests in the past 24 hours, Scottish Government figures show.

There are 784 people in hospital confirmed to have the virus, down 40 in 24 hours, and 71 patients are in intensive care, the same number as Monday.

A total of 1,634,361 people have received their first dose of a coronavirus vaccine as of Tuesday morning and 84,445 have received their second dose.