FM says ‘no substantial difference’ with UK on lockdown

The First Minister told Scotland Tonight that parts of the UK could move at a slightly different pace.

Nicola Sturgeon has said she does not believe there is “a huge amount of difference” in the positions of the Scottish and UK governments on lifting the Covid-19 lockdown.

Speaking to STV’s Scotland Tonight, the First Minister said different parts of the UK could ease restrictions at a different pace but with “no substantive difference in direction”.

She was speaking in a Q&A with members of the public, to be aired on STV at 7.30pm on Thursday.

The FM also raised the possibility that people might be allowed more outdoor exercise than the single daily session currently mandated, with more to come on that “over the next couple of days”.

She said that while her government will extend the lockdown in Scotland for another three weeks – until May 28 – all measures are likely to be kept under constant review.

The First Minister also revealed the Scottish Government will air a new advert on Friday to recruit contract tracers, as part of the country’s mass “test, trace, isolate” plans.

Scottish ministers say a regime of 15,500 tests per day, backed by 2000 contact tracers, will be needed to contain any new pockets of the virus so lockdown measures can begin to be eased.

Sturgeon defended the Scottish Government’s approach in implementing the lockdown amid criticism it was done too late, saying “the easiest thing in the world is to have 20/20 hindsight”.

It comes as Scotland’s death toll of confirmed and suspected Covid-19 cases nears 3000, while the UK’s total of more than 32,000 deaths is currently the worst in Europe.

“In due course, we’ll look back and learn lessons from this,” the First Minister said.

“We’re trying to learn as we go but at every stage we have taken, certainly, the Scottish Government has taken, the best decisions – the decisions we consider to be right at the right time and we will continue to do that.

“While any death is, as far as I’m concerned, a tragedy – there is no acceptable death toll – no country is through this pandemic yet.

“All countries measure deaths differently and we have to wait and see how this plays out before any country could claim success or compare in any meaningful way.

“In Scotland, we comprehensively report numbers of deaths and what we see yesterday is that last week is the first week we’ve seen a decline in those deaths.”

She said she asks herself “every single day” if her government is taking the right decisions to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

“We went into lockdown and took these steps at the right time based on the information we had then. The easiest thing in the world is to have 20/20 hindsight.”

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

The UK entered the second “delay phase” of its strategy against Covid-19 on March 12 – when the virus was considered “widespread” – but did not implement a full lockdown until March 23.

Sturgeon said: “We didn’t delay the lockdown – we went into lockdown at the point then we thought was right to do it.

“I guess in the fullness of time, everybody will look back and say did we do this right, did we do that right, did we do this soon enough or not, and that will be fair and legitimate.

“But we went into lockdown and took these steps at the right time based on the information we had then.

“The easiest thing in the world is to have 20/20 hindsight.”

She highlighted positions the Scottish Government had adopted earlier or in contrast to UK ministers, such as the banning of mass gatherings, the closure of schools, advice to cease non-essential construction and recent advice on face coverings.

The First Minister said health officials and politicians were still learning new things about Covid-19 all the time – a virus, she added, that was still only 130 days old.

On easing the lockdown, she said she had had a “good conversation” with Prime Minister earlier on Thursday along with the leaders of the other devolved governments.

It came after headlines suggesting Boris Johnson plans to lift a swathe of restrictions in England, including allowing unlimited exercise, the return of some sports, park picnics, and the opening of pub and cafe gardens.

The media reports also said the UK Government intended to scrap the “stay at home” slogan – but Downing Street has sought to play down these claims.

Johnson intends to make an address to the nation on Sunday concerning the lockdown.

Sturgeon said the PM had been “at pains” to say he would not be “proposing some early substantial lifting of restrictions”.

She said: “I still don’t know all of the detail of what the Prime Minister might propose on Sunday.

“But having spoken to him, I’m not sure there will be a huge amount of difference, if any difference at all, in our positions.

“I suspect, and I can only speak for myself, I have indicated today that these restrictions will be extended just now.

“That means we’ve got a deadline of three weeks from now to review them again.

“But that doesn’t mean we won’t make any changes before then if the evidence says it’s safe to do so.”

The First Minister continued: “We’re considering an early change to give people more opportunity to go for outdoor exercise and we’ll say more about that over the next couple of days.

“I’m very keen that we do move at the same pace in all parts of the UK. I think that makes it easier for me to give very clear messages.

“But I think we have to recognise that the evidence about how the infection is spreading, what stage it is at, might be slightly different in different parts of the UK.

“We all accept that if that’s the case, either we accept the pace of the slowest or we accept there may be a slight differences in our approach.

“But it will be a difference of pace rather than any substantive difference in direction.”

However, she pointed out the scientific evidence guiding their decisions “is developing all the time”.

She said she expects all four UK nations to agree a formal extension of the lockdown, but “with an agreement that as we move forward now, we have to keep them all under review”.

The First Minister said: “I don’t want the restrictions to be in place for a minute longer than they have to be.

“But equally, I am not prepared to lift them prematurely and risk a resurgence of the virus because that would be the worst possible thing that I could do.

“And I’m not prepared at this stage to change the very clear, well-understood ‘stay at home’ message.

“That is the advice as of now and that will continue to be the case over coming days.

“Stay at home, except for one of these limited reasons to go out – which is exercise, food, medicine – and remember to follow all the precautions when you are out.”

After the Prime Minister’s call with the First Minister, Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford and Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill, Downing Street issued a statement.

A spokesman said: “During the call, the Prime Minister emphasised that this is a critical moment in the fight against coronavirus and that the government will not throw away the efforts and sacrifices of the British people.

“He was clear that we will not risk a second peak that could overwhelm the NHS and we will act with maximum caution in order to save lives.

“He reiterated his commitment to continuing our UK-wide approach to tackling coronavirus, even if different parts of the UK begin to move at slightly different speeds. Those decisions will be made based on the science for each nation.

“They all agreed that continued engagement between our administrations is vital and to remain in close contact in the days and weeks ahead.”

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