Looking beyond the softly, softly approach on lifting lockdown

First Minister makes a plea for Scots to support local businesses.

Looking beyond the softly, softly approach on lifting lockdown Pixabay

There was a telling line in the First Minister’s briefing today which underlined that ministers are now looking beyond the softly, softly approach on lifting lockdown.

It was a plea for Scots to support local businesses.

Now, that might appear to be a statement which should be obvious you might think, you would expect nothing less. But for months the pitch has been to stay at home, to avoid unnecessary travel to exercise caution as if your life quite literally depended on it.

Today was the most explicit urging to get out and help retailers, pubs and restaurants. It did not come with the honk of a claxon and a Johnsonian plea to stampede your way to retail, but the message was unmistakable nonetheless. 

And, as if to emphasise the point, the two-metre rule on social distancing will be relaxed so long as appropriate mitigation measures are put in place by businesses.

This was the clearest indication yet that the economic harm of staying with existing measures has to be addressed. The qualified relaxation of the social distancing rules for business was a “balanced and proportionate” response with Nicola Sturgeon conceding that making two metres mandatory in all circumstances could represent the “difference between staying in business and closing”.

Now, these comments will probably be regarded as too cautious by some businesses already teetering on the brink, but I think the see saw just tilted, albeit marginally in favour of a presumption of lifting measures to boost economic activity. I think it is a significant moment.

The outbreak in Dumfries and Galloway is a reminder that the virus is still out there. It is why the Scottish Government continues to tread with care. It is also why face coverings will now be mandatory in shops from next week and it is why the two-metre rule hasn’t been abandoned.

Indeed on social distancing the science has not changed, with the First Minister reporting that cutting it from two metres to one increases risk from two to tenfold. The absolute risk of course falls as infection rates plummet, hence the room for manoeuvre in relation to business.

For the second day in a row now there has been an inter-governmental row. Yesterday it was about the hypothetical situation of people from other parts of the UK being asked to quarantine when arriving in Scotland.

Today, an allegation that the Scottish Government is dragging its feet in agreeing a raft of so called ‘air bridges’ which would dispense with quarantining when coming back from abroad.

Let’s take them in turn.

First, quarantining as you enter Scotland from other parts of the UK. The newspaper headlines scream a sort of all-out war on this issue. It is one of these situations which have generated a verbal thunder and lightning but it is based on a scenario unlikely to materialise.

Sturgeon didn’t eliminate the possibility of requesting quarantining if scientific advice recommended it in specific circumstances. First, it’s hypothetical. Second, there are no plans for it. Third, common sense tells you the policy would be a plea to stay away to limit infection. Those who envisage police officers or army personnel on the M74 and A1 with heat sensors should go and lie down.

Which brings me to the issue of quarantining from abroad rather than from within the UK. What is clear is that the current UK Government policy is unenforceable. The BBC report today that no-one has been fined for a breach of the requirement to quarantine for 14 days when returning from abroad. Such a policy is beyond policing and is only enforceable by tying up huge numbers of people keeping tabs on those entering the UK.

Rather than perform a wholesale u-turn on a policy that was always impractical, the UK Government are killing it by stealth and somewhat ironically are now attacking Scottish ministers for allegedly applying the breaks on a policy they thought essential just a matter of weeks ago.

The allegation of feet dragging was made by Grant Shapps today and brought a rebuke from Sturgeon, who said the UK Government should spend less time misrepresenting the position of the Scottish administration, adding that they should stop picking pointless fights.

Two days, two rows and both anchored not in public health considerations but in raw politics. It really should stop. Given the virus has not gone and people are still grieving it all has a tawdry feel about it. Everyone, politicians included, deserves better.