Yesterday in London, a member of the government’s SAGE committee on the response to Covid suggested that for every day of relaxed restrictions over the festive period it would require five days of tighter measures by way of clawing back lost ground to the virus.
Put another way, relaxing rules for a week would mean tighter restrictions for a month or more. The rationale of the observation and its implications could see a loosening of restrictions only for the festive cheer to give way to another lockdown just as Auld Lang Syne is still ringing in the ears.
Ruth Davidson of the Scottish Conservatives raised the issue at FMQs today, saying that people in Scotland needed a fuller sense of what ministers are discussing, given that all four nations of the UK are striving to find a common approach on this. She asked pointedly whether the five-to-one ratio was part of the Scottish Government’s planning?
Nicola Sturgeon said she had not seen the minutes of the SAGE meeting that discussed the 5:1 ratio, nor did she know what underpinned the thinking but that she had asked her own officials to prepare their own views on this.
The First Minister said relaxing rules over the festive period would be a difficult balance to strike. It was clear from her reply that the “greater degree of normality” she spoke of would stop short, perhaps well short, of a traditional Xmas for most families. The exact rules for the period would have to wait for another day but a clear steer on this should be available next week, she said.
One of the rules that becomes law tomorrow exercised the Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. He urged the First Minister to reconsider the ‘Travel Ban’ which would see foreign travel be perfectly legal but travel to the airport become unlawful.
He cited the case of Lindzi Page from Fife. She is suffering from cancer and wants to take her kids to Tenerife next week but can’t travel to the airport. Leonard asked: “What is your advice today to Lindzi Page?”
The FM said she had written to Lindzi saying that she could go on holiday since the rules allow for travel on compassionate grounds. The Scottish Government also give a non-exhaustive list of circumstances that would provide a ‘reasonable excuse’ for breaking the travel injunction on their website.
This is clearly not an easy issue, what is a reasonable excuse? It is the kind of imprecise language that courts hate to interpret, since they have to guess what Parliament had in mind when the law was passed. That being said, it is highly unlikely that the justice system will become embroiled in this controversy.
Police officers will not be setting up road blocks at the boundaries of local authorities or at the entrance to airports. The measure is really designed to send out a message about travel to engineer a change in behaviour. At least, that’s my reading of the situation.
In so far as it will be policed at all, only the most flagrant breaches are likely to end up with the motorist in bother and I would be surprised if arguments between a driver and a police officer over what is a ‘reasonable excuse’ will end up in a court. But we shall see, time will tell on that front.
Willie Rennie, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, bemoaned that of the additional 800 new mental health workers in Scotland only 12 were working with Police Scotland. The First Minister undertook to publish a breakdown of where these workers were actually allocated.
Alison Johnstone of the Scottish Greens said that compliance with self-isolation was very low, perhaps even as low as one in four. She said the FM had told MSPs that hotel rooms would be made available for this purpose if deemed necessary. She wanted to know exactly how many had been made available since the pledge was made back in May.
No figure was forthcoming but the FM said support for those self-isolating was being enhanced and extended.
Back to the 5:1 ratio for a moment. If that does become the guiding wisdom then the loosening over the festive period might be numbered in a few days. A longer extension covering both Xmas and New Year would inevitably lead to more infections, hospitalisations and deaths and, of course, a third lockdown in order to drive the higher infection rates back down.
The ‘R’ number might now be below 1 as the current restrictions start to bite. For all that, just over 1000 people in Scotland tested positive yesterday and another 50 lost their lives.
It is these statistics, the daily recitation that makes figures from human misery that jolts and gives cause for all of us to be grateful that news on vaccines gets more encouraging with every passing day.