Social distancing and empty stadiums for a long time to come

Analysis as Nicola Sturgeon rules nothing in and nothing out when it comes to lifting lockdown.

The most striking feature of Nicola Sturgeon’s briefing today on the principles underpinning the road to the new normal is the message that the end of lockdown is a long, long way off.

In all likelihood, some measures currently in force will be with us through the remainder of 2020 and into 2021.

It was a ‘nothing ruled in, nothing ruled out’ message going forward. It was not a clear steer on what restrictions would be relaxed first and what sectors of economic activity might resume in the coming weeks and months.

This was a deliberate exercise in imprecision. The First Minister’s message was that until the scientific evidence is clear she will do nothing that will risk a second spike in infections.

Although she will never put it in these crude terms, it is clear her view is that public health considerations trump everything, even if that means taking the kind of economic hit that will take years to recover from.

Her statement was peppered with caution.

Restrictions will be with us for “a long time to come”. How long could they last? “Possibly the end of the year and perhaps even beyond.” Any change would be “gradual, incremental” but might need to be reversed depending on what happens. Large gatherings such as concerts and football matches will be “off for some months to come”.

So does that mean that nothing will change for months? No, it does not. It means that change will be slower than perhaps many individuals and businesses would like. When schools go back and office life resumes it will not be as before. Some measure of social distancing will remain.

There is a possibility – highly speculative at the moment – that the governments north and south diverge on the timetable to lift lockdown. The question that can’t be answered is whether or not the UK Treasury would continue to fund business support in Scotland in such a scenario.

Sturgeon said discussions take place all the time on a range of issues but she was clearly anxious not to say anything today that opened an inter-governmental split on the issue or risked confusing key messages.

If businesses were looking for an unambiguous steer tied to a firm timetable then they will be disappointed. In truth, they were never going to get that. What today did underline is that the uncertainty, so loathed by business, is simply going to be a fact of life in the medium term.

One issue that has generated much heat and social media fury recently is Scottish football’s decision to close the season in the lower leagues and raise the possibility of closing the Premiership season too.

As it is about our national obsession we have conspiracy theories, calls for sackings and inquiries as well as predictions of financial Armageddon.  Anything football related needs the firm foundations of soap opera.

On that last point on finance I would suggest the tone of today’s briefing is ominous. Forget the thunder of recent weeks, that might look like a case of a little local difficulty compared to what lies ahead in the coming months.

The key issue is not now about the current season concluding but whether the new one will ever start. If it does it appears clear to this observer it will not be to capacity crowds in Premiership venues. In fact, there might be no crowds at all.

The knock-on effect for season ticket and broadcasting income will propel clubs to the edge as they are locked into player contracts that will simply become too onerous to honour.

Public health trumps all, whether it is medium-term economic considerations or viewing our national game as sacrosanct.

There were a few occasions today when the FM appeared impatient at some of the questions, such as the suggestion that “Christmas could be cancelled”. She didn’t say it but her exasperated look said she felt the suggestion a cheap invitation to write a tabloid headline. She resisted.

Christmas will not be cancelled. But like everything else, it will not be as we know it.