By Bill Heaney
We have taken account of the very high level of infection and the pressure on the NHS, and of the fact that face coverings provide an important layer of protection against transmission of the virus from one person to another, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told the Scottish Parliament today.
She added: “However, we are also mindful that the data may now be indicating a peaking of the current wave of infection, which should, we hope, become more pronounced over the next couple of weeks.
“We have therefore concluded that, subject, as always, to the state of the pandemic, the legal requirement to wear face coverings will be replaced with guidance on the following phased basis.
“From next Monday, 4 April, it will no longer be a legal requirement to wear a face covering in places of worship or while attending a marriage ceremony, civil partnership registration or funeral service or commemorative event.
“Then the wider legal requirement that applies to shops, certain other indoor settings and public transport will be converted to guidance two weeks later, on 18 April. We will of course continue to encourage the wearing of face coverings in certain indoor places, especially where significant numbers of people are present.”
Ms Sturgeon said that this phased approach “strikes a sensible balance between our desire to remove the one remaining legal measure and the commonsense need for continued caution, not least for the sake of the NHS, while the current wave of infection subsides”.
She added: “I recognise that face coverings are an inconvenience. However, given all the sacrifice of the past two years, and in view of the current pressure on the NHS, I believe that the vast majority of people will accept that, for a further two weeks, it is a proportionate precautionary measure while we pass the peak of the latest wave. It also provides some additional protection to those who are most at risk from the virus.”
The First Minister concluded: “Life has returned to normal for most of us, but Covid has not gone away. Indeed, in recent weeks, very few of us will have been untouched by the virus—either ourselves or within our families or networks of colleagues.
“That in itself is a sign of how infectious the virus continues to be, so while the level of infection remains as high as it is, I ask that people, please, continue to take sensible basic steps to protect themselves and others.”
Dumbarton MSP Jackie Baillie, right, who is the health spokesperson for Scottish Labour, was not content with the First Minister’s explanation of the way Forward.
She told MSPs: “The levels of Covid remain concerning, not least due to the impact on the NHS. Although life is returning to near normality for many people, that is not the case for those who are immunocompromised and for the 180,000 people who were on the shielding list.
“Where is the detail about testing for them and their family carers beyond April, and what about access to antivirals? When will the First Minister set out plans to ensure that those people and their carers are afforded assurance about what will happen to them?
“While we are on the subject of testing, will testing in schools end? I understand that the advice that is being considered will be that pupils should stay off school if they have any symptoms, without knowing whether they have a cold or Covid.
“Pupils and staff absences are already high, which will cause disruptions to pupils’ education at the time when exams start. Given that very little has been done to improve ventilation in classrooms, will the First Minister reconsider the matter and ensure that asymptomatic testing continues in schools for at least the next two months?
“Finally, I welcome the next stage of the vaccination programme, but we really should have learned the lessons from before and not be sending my 80-year-old constituent from Helensburgh to Dunoon—a 100-mile round trip on two ferries—to get their booster.
“Hundreds of people have been sent letters giving them appointments many miles away from their homes, and have been told that even if they were to get an appointment locally, they might need to wait until the end of May or the beginning of June. That is a problem with the national vaccination scheduling service. Can the First Minister ensure that it is fixed?”
Ms Sturgeon told her: “On vaccination in Argyll and Bute [Helensburgh, Cardross and Lomond are in Jackie Baillie’s constituency], we and those in Argyll and Bute have apologised to the people who have been affected by what was an error.
“My officials met the Argyll and Bute health and social care partnership and NHS Highland to ensure that the problem was being rectified as soon as it had been identified. Everyone who was affected will be contacted as soon as possible, with a new appointment for the correct local vaccination clinic to follow.
“Obviously, in a large-scale programme, errors such as that are deeply regrettable when they happen, but that does not take away from the massive success of the vaccination programme, which is the only thing that is preventing all of us right now from having to live with much greater restrictions, because it is helping protect against serious illness.
“On the wider questions about people with compromised or suppressed immune systems, they are, of course, being offered additional boosters. That is the first line of protection, and I set out the broad timescale for that in my statement.
“After the population-wide testing programme ceases in its current form, testing will be used to ensure that people who would benefit from, and are eligible for, antiviral treatment get speedy access to it. The treatment is being offered on a fairly restricted basis, but it will expand as more antiviral treatments become available.
“With regard to schools, we will continue to develop the guidance. It is not testing that is causing young people to be absent, but high levels of infection, so it is important that we get infection levels down so that we reduce the impact of the virus on schools, just as we want to reduce it in broader society.
“As we have done all along, we continue to take a balanced approach to the measures that are in place in schools. We will continue to ensure targeted access to testing on the basis that is set out in the testing strategy, and we will go beyond that as far as we can if necessary, given the constraints on funding that I have set out previously in the chamber.”
LibDem leader Alex Cole-Hamilton, pictured left, told MSPs: “I, too, share Jackie Baillie’s concerns about the paucity of detail on removal of universal access to free LFTs. A fortnight ago, I wrote to the First Minister about the cost of LFTs after 1 May.
“The Scottish Government has moved in lock step with the UK Government on testing, which means an end to free lateral flow tests in almost all circumstances. They are already being sold online.
“Thousands of people rely on LFTs to protect their loved ones, to protect people whom they know are immunosuppressed and to protect those who have spent months shielding from Covid. Understandably, they want to give those people comfort and confidence, but they will be worried about the new cost of caring. It is nothing short of a “Visit your gran” tax.
“Will the First Minister guarantee that all carers, NHS staff, and care home staff and visitors have access to free Covid tests? Will she commit to creating a scheme to ensure that free LFTs are available for those who are anxious to protect vulnerable loved ones?”
However, the First Minister told him: “The Scottish Government is not in the same position on testing as the UK Government. A cursory look at the position of the UK Government will testify to that. We still support testing in ways that are currently not being used in the rest of the UK.
“We will continue to support appropriate and targeted use of testing for the purposes that are set out in the testing strategy, and when we advise people to take tests, we will not expect them to pay for those tests, but will continue to ensure access to testing free of charge.
“Of course, we will continue to have discussions with people who care for others and people who visit loved ones in particular settings in order that we ensure that there is appropriate access to testing as we move beyond the population-wide approach that we have taken until now.”