Nearly three million Scots have been left in limbo by “out of date” council-wide coronavirus restrictions, opposition parties have claimed, as hospitality leaders hit out at the move “from lockdown to slowdown”.
Nicola Sturgeon has confirmed Covid-19 restrictions will be eased in some parts of the country from Saturday but 14 council areas and some 2.96 million people will retain tougher controls due to spikes in cases of Covid-19.
The first minister told MSPs that parts of Scotland such as Angus, Perth and Kinross, Fife, Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Moray and the Highlands will move from Level 2 to Level 1 of the five tiers of restrictions, which run from 0-4.
However Edinburgh and Midlothian, Dundee, East Dunbartonshire, Renfrewshire and East Renfrewshire, the three Ayrshire areas, North and South Lanarkshire and Clackmannanshire and Stirling will remain in Level 2.
Glasgow, which was kept in Level 3 when measures eased in the rest of the country on May 17, will move to Level 2 on Saturday, with Ms Sturgeon saying the outbreak there had stabilised with case numbers falling slightly.
Meanwhile Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles council areas will move to Level 0, allowing larger groups to meet in a private residence and adult contact sport to return.
Two steps forward but one back
Business leaders welcomed the loosening of measures in some areas but warned that for many the announcement will be seen as “two steps forward but one back for Scotland’s business community”.
Federation of Small Businesses Scotland policy chairman Andrew McRae said: “Glasgow and large swathes of Scotland will be pleased to hear that some restrictions are to be lifted but firms and communities in the rest of the country will be frustrated that progress has stalled.
“We’ve gone from lockdown to slowdown, and patience and cash reserves are in short supply. The Scottish Government’s next priority must be to outline how they’ll get all of the country’s smaller firms and self-employed back on their feet.
“From the start of July, the furlough scheme will begin to get wound down but it looks like businesses in Scotland will still face substantial trading restrictions.
“This could be the final straw for many local operators, and decision-makers in Edinburgh and London must avoid this crunch point. Further, we need to get urgent financial help to firms who took on workers in anticipation of greater freedoms but now can’t furlough these employees.”
Moving the goalposts
Stephen Montgomery, spokesman for the Scottish Hospitality Group , invited Nicola Sturgeon and her Cabinet colleagues to visit premises and “learn for themselves how damaging and distressing their approach is”.
He said: “It’s a bit ironic that just a week before the Euros kick off, the government has moved the goalposts yet again. It’s even worse when you consider that they’re allowing a fan zone to go live where alcohol will be served to 6,000 people a day.
“The further reduction in hospitalised Covid admissions shows that the vaccination effort is working, so surely case numbers don’t matter if those people who do test positive remain fit and healthy?
“We don’t place restrictions on entire cities when it’s winter flu season, so why on earth are we doing it now? And how can businesses trust what the government is saying about the future when the objectives keep changing?”
A disappointing setback
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said many Scots had been left “in limbo” and described the decision as a “disappointing setback” when people are already “at the end of their tether” after a year of disruption.
His party has argued the whole of Scotland should move to Level 1 from June 7, with a new approach of targeted interventions where local outbreaks occur, instead of “sweeping” and “out of date” council-wide measures.
Mr Ross insisted pumping the brakes on Scotland’s wider exit from lockdown is the “wrong move” and said more emphasis should be placed on the impact of restrictions on “businesses, jobs and people’s mental and physical health.”
“I had hoped to say that today’s statement was, at least broadly, a move in the right direction,” he said. “But for people all over the country – in 14 council areas – this is a disappointing setback.
“Half of the country will move forward, the rest remains stuck in limbo, with no clear idea of when restrictions will ease.
“We understand the need for caution. But we also believe more emphasis needs to be placed on the impact of these restrictions on businesses, jobs, and people’s mental and physical health.
“The Scottish Conservatives believe a more local approach is necessary, with targeted interventions to tackle local outbreaks, instead of sweeping measures.
“The approach of council-wide restrictions is now out of date. It was designed before we had an effective, successful vaccination scheme that has now delivered 3.2 million first jags. Keeping whole councils or cities in level two is not a targeted, local approach.”
A bitter blow
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said the announcement would come as a “bitter blow” for areas expecting to be moved down a level and insisted more must be done to ensure vaccine uptake is encouraged.
“I want to focus on our response in hotspot areas,” he said. “It is paramount that we design proper protocols for what happens in current and future hotspot areas, learning from the Glasgow experience.
“Those protocols must include walk-in vaccination centres for everyone aged over 18, the mass roll-out of PCR tests, increased support for local businesses and greater access to isolation support grants.
“That must be our first point of call in future outbreaks – not further lockdowns which damage the economy and have a negative effect on people’s mental health and wellbeing.”
Vaccines are changing the game
Announcing the changes to MSPs at Holyrood on Tuesday, Ms Sturgeon acknowledged they may feel like a “mixed bag” but stressed this is only because the country is in a “transition phase”.
“No part of the country is going backwards today,” she said.
“Before the vaccines, that would have been impossible on case numbers like this. But the vaccines are changing the game. And that means we can still be optimistic about our chances of much more normality over the summer and beyond.
“As always, all of us have a part to play in beating this virus back. So please, stick with it, and each other.”
Dundee MSPs in rallying call
Following the announcement, Dundee MSPs Joe FitzPatrick and Shona Robison encouraged local residents to continue to play their part to ensure the virus can be brought under control.
With case numbers rising across the city, the pair are calling on the public to get vaccinated when they are invited to do so, isolate and get tested if they have symptoms, and take up the offer of asymptomatic testing at mobile testing vans and facilities.
Mr FitzPatrick said: “The rising numbers of cases in Dundee is concerning, and we all need to take steps to ensure that this is brought under control as quickly as possible.
“There had been some concern that Dundee and some other council areas were meeting the criteria for a return backwards to Level 3 but I’m pleased that the Scottish Government has taken a balanced view of the risks and determined that Dundee should stay at Level 2.
“Nobody wants to see a return to tougher restrictions, so it’s vitally important that we all continue to listen to the public health advice to drive down case numbers.”
Ms Robison added: “Until recently we had been doing well in Dundee to get case numbers down, but unfortunately there has been a clear rise in recent days, with the new more infectious variant contributing to the rising case numbers.
“It is important to stress that this is a pause for Dundee and those other Council areas that are remaining at Level 2, not a step backwards.”