Published by BBC NEWS - 22nd February 2022

Nicola Sturgeon

Image source, Getty Images

Nicola Sturgeon is to unveil the Scottish government’s plans for managing the Covid-19 pandemic in a “much less restrictive” way in future.

The first minister will present a new “strategic framework” to MSPs in a Holyrood statement after 14:00.

It comes after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that all legal restrictions will end in England.

Ms Sturgeon said her aim was to get back to normality while maintaining “vigilance” against future outbreaks.

Her statement could detail when existing restrictions are to be lifted, although the first minister has cited testing and isolation as examples of measures which could continue to help keep the virus under control.

On Monday, Mr Johnson told MPs that all of England’s legal restrictions would be lifted on Thursday – including the requirement to self-isolate for those who test positive – while free mass testing will stop in April.

Routine contact tracing is to end, while close contacts of English positive cases will no longer be legally required to test daily, with the government encouraging people to exercise “personal responsibility” instead.

The prime minister said he would “continue to work closely with the devolved administrations as they decide how to take forward their own plans”.

But Scottish ministers have called for clarity about what his announcement means for programmes and funding north of the border, with the mass testing system a UK-wide initiative.

Questioned about funding in the Commons, Mr Johnson appeared to suggest the Scottish government would have to fund any continued free testing from its existing budgets.

The Scottish government has been drawing up its own plans for managing the pandemic with fewer restrictions in future, due to be published on Tuesday afternoon.

This could include dates for the ending of current restrictions including the vaccine passport system, along with details about testing and how any new variant could be dealt with.

Boris Johnson

Image source, Getty Images

On Monday, Ms Sturgeon said it was important to “strike the right balance” between getting back to normal and continuing to control the virus.

She said: “There will be a lot of optimism around what I set out, but I’ve got to be frank with people – we are still in a pandemic of this virus, we know from past experience that new variants can come about and cause new challenges.

“We need to be vigilant and prepared for that, but we also need to manage that risk in a much less restrictive and more sustainable way for the future so we can get back to normal – and retain that sense of normality even as we maintain that sense of vigilance.”

Isolation and testing

Ms Sturgeon meanwhile said certain measures should be seen as “being part of what enables us to live with greater normality”, citing isolation and testing as being helpful in minimising the spread of Covid-19.

Critics of Mr Johnson’s plans for England have agreed that while there is need to pare back costly testing regimes, lifting all measures will significantly impact people in poor health and those on lower incomes.

Prof Alan McNally, a microbiologist at the University of Birmingham, said the decision to remove testing combined with scrapping self isolation measures would “throw clinically vulnerable people under the bus”.

Speaking to the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland programme, he said: “It’s going to be extremely difficult for them to go out and do anything in public with any level of confidence. I can’t recall an instance where we’ve taken a pathogen which is so serious and just decide we’re going to let it infect people and not take any action.

“If you’re creating an environment where you’re allowing the virus to transmit freely with no interventions, the more numbers of infection you have the higher the chance of mutation – that’s just basic evolutionary biology.”

lateral flow tests

Image source, Getty Images

Dr Andrew Buist from the British Medical Association’s GPs committee also told the programme he hoped the Scottish government would retain free access to lateral flow testing in order to support people on lower or insecure incomes.

He added: “Doing the right thing is much easier if you’re in a secure job but if you’re not paid if you don’t go to work or if you don’t have the funds to buy the test kits there will always be temptation to go to work.

“Most people with Covid symptoms go to the assessment centres – they are due to shut down by Easter so I expect we’ll see more people with Covid coming into general practice. So the retention of the ability for people to easily test themselves at home is essential.”

However retail and hospitality figures have called for an end to certain measures including the Covid passport scheme and mandatory wearing of face masks.

Pub owner Gavin Stevenson, who is a member of the Night Time Industry Association, argued that venues having to use the passport scheme are seeing an impact on trade – while others which do not need passport checks have recovered to 90% of pre-pandemic trading.

“A big challenge is the real lack of uptake of vaccine passports,” he added. “We’re still seeing lots of people not realising they needed one to get in.”

Call to ‘trust the public’

The first minister has said MSPs will be given the chance to debate and vote on the strategic framework, giving opposition parties the chance to outline their own proposals.

The Scottish Conservatives have urged the government to put greater emphasis on “trusting the public to act responsibly”, while phasing out the mass testing system and setting up long Covid clinics.

Health spokesman Dr Sandesh Gulhane said: “With the data on the virus being much more encouraging, we have to move away from blanket restrictions and instead trust the public to do the right thing.”

Scottish Labour stressed that “the virus has not gone away”, urging ministers in Edinburgh and London to co-operate rather than compete.

Deputy leader Jackie Baillie said: “When the people of Scotland most need co-operation between both of Scotland’s governments, we are faced with the prospect of them taking opposing positions on the easing of restrictions.

“Both governments must make decisions that are grounded in science and in the real world.”

Meanwhile, the Scottish Lib Dems want the government to drop the Covid passport scheme, with leader Alex Cole-Hamilton calling it “illiberal and ineffective”.

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