Coronavirus: Sturgeon warns against 'reckless' easing of lockdown

Shoppers in EdinburghImage source, Getty Images

Nicola Sturgeon has warned against any "reckless" move to ease lockdown in Scotland despite a growing "economic crisis" and rising unemployment.

The first minister spoke after the release of the latest jobless figures.

The unemployment rate rose to 4.6% in Scotland between February and April, compared with a UK-wide rate of 3.9%.

Ms Sturgeon said easing the lockdown "too quickly" would risk a resurgence of the virus which would cost lives and economic productivity.

She said the progress made in suppressing Covid-19 so far could help build a "sustainable economy recovery".

And she called on the UK government to extend the job retention "furlough" scheme, saying it was "almost certain" to be needed beyond October.

Scotland is expected to move to the second phase of the government's "route map" towards lifting lockdown on Thursday, which could see a "safe re-opening" of more shops and workplaces.

The latest data from the Office for National Statistics suggested that unemployment in Scotland had risen by 30,000 to 127,000 between February and April, covering the period when lockdown first hit the labour market.

Ms Sturgeon said it was important to be "cautious" about drawing conclusions from the data.

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She said the protection of the furlough scheme "means these figures are likely to be an underestimate of the full impact of Covid-19 on business activity".

However, she said it "undoubtedly" showed that "dealing with the public health crisis of Covid has created an economic crisis that demands our full focus and attention".

She said: "These kinds of statistics and generally increasing economic anxiety will lead some to argue for a quicker than planned exit from lockdown.

"But difficult though all this is, we must guard against a reckless relaxation of lockdown. If we ease restrictions too quickly and allow the virus to run out of control again, that would be economically unproductive and would cost more lives.

"The progress we have made is an essential foundation for the sustainable economic recovery we want - the more we can suppress this virus now, the more normality we can restore as we do open up the economy and society."

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The latest review of Scotland's lockdown is to be held on Thursday, with the first minister saying she would "hope and expect" that Scotland could move to the second phase of her government's "route map".

Measures included in phase two include letting people meet in larger groups outdoors, and with another household indoors. It could also see factories, warehouses, laboratories and small shops re-open and the construction industry begin to re-start.

Ms Sturgeon said: "Not all major changes will happen overnight, but I do hope in the coming weeks that further important restrictions will be lifted so workers can return to factories, with strict hygiene and physical distancing measures in place, so the construction industry can continue its restart plan, and non-essential shops have a date for safe re-opening.

"None of this will restore the economy immediately to full health but will be a sustainable improvement on our current position."

The route map for easing lockdown

The Scottish government has identified four phases for easing the restrictions:

Phase 1: Virus not yet contained but cases are falling. From 28 May you should be able to meet another household outside in small numbers. Sunbathing is allowed, along with some outdoor activities like golf and fishing. Garden centres and drive-through takeaways can reopen, some outdoor work can resume, and childminding services can begin.

Phase 2: Virus controlled. You can meet larger groups outdoors, and meet another household indoors. Construction, factories, warehouses, laboratories and small shops can resume work. Playgrounds and sports courts can reopen, and professional sport can begin again.

Phase 3: Virus suppressed. You can meet people from more than one household indoors. Non-essential offices would reopen, along with gyms, museums, libraries, cinemas, larger shops, pubs, restaurants, hairdressers and dentists. Live events could take place with restricted numbers and physical distancing restrictions. Schools should reopen from 11 August.

Phase 4: Virus no longer a significant threat. University and college campuses can reopen in full, mass gatherings are allowed. All workplaces open and public transport is back at full capacity.

The first minister said she had "zero interest in keeping any part of the country in lockdown any longer than is necessary", but said "patience will pay dividends in the future".

She said: "A gradual re-emergence is crucial - it allows our businesses to start to operate and make money again, but we know that because this re-emergence is by necessity gradual it must be accompanied by continued support for business.

"We have welcomed assistance from the UK government such as the job retention scheme, but it's essential this is extended if that proves necessary - which I think is almost certain."

Scottish Secretary Alister Jack said the UK government was providing "comprehensive coronavirus support packages" and that the furlough scheme and a similar system for the self-employed had "saved nearly 800,000 jobs across Scotland".

More than a quarter of the UK's workforce is now covered by the furlough scheme, which is due to run until the end of October - although the amount of money firms have to contribute is to increase each month.

'Economic collapse'

Ms Sturgeon also resisted calls to relax the 2m (6ft) physical distancing rule, saying it would hit businesses harder if the virus were to start spreading out of control again.

The Scottish Chambers of Commerce said it was "essential" this rule be relaxed "to prevent wholesale economic collapse" of the retail, hotel and restaurant sectors.

The Scottish Beer and Pub Association said the limit "simply does not make financial sense".

Ms Sturgeon said the rule would be kept under review, but said it was better to re-open the economy "sustainably" than to "run the risk of having to shut it again weeks or months later" because of a resurgence of the virus.