While the evidence indicates that there is minimal latitude to change current restrictions in Scotland before the coming review date of 7th May, which marks the end of the current three-week cycle, we are using this time to consider themes and options for changes when it does become safe to introduce them. We will want to have assessed these options fully - and made the necessary preparations for implementation if the evidence suggests that it's possible for any of them - ahead of the next end-of-cycle review date of 28th May.
Although we cannot put dates for Scotland on any of these changes yet, we are thinking through how they can be made safely when the time is right. For example, we are working with our partners in the Education Recovery Group to ensure that our schools and the way we use them will be safe. We are also urgently considering how we can safely resume aspects of our health service that were deferred to create additional COVID-19 capacity, to ensure that urgent need is addressed. This approach to redesigning processes, services and workplaces is being replicated across the country as we move towards the 'new normal'.
In this section we want to share with you the options we are reviewing as having potential for initial changes. These are not the only options that we will consider over the coming weeks; we know the whole range of restrictions is of concern and each of the regulations must be kept under review. At present the weight of evidence indicates that there is very little room, if any, for changing restrictions at this time in Scotland and it is possible that some or all of any changes we do eventually make will have to be reversed if that is necessary to suppress the virus and prevent a resurgence of cases.
The options currently being considered by the Scottish Government as possible initial steps are in five themes. The options are derived from the emerging international evidence, from what people and organisations are telling us in Scotland, and from our own analysis of which options might best alleviate harm without compromising our over-riding public-health objective to suppress the virus.
All options within these themes remain under consideration at this stage; no specific changes have been decided upon, and we may conclude that it is not safe to proceed with any specific changes either in the near future or the longer term. However, we want to make the necessary preparations now, so that when the time is right to make the changes, they can happen safely and effectively. The themes are set out below.
A. Changes to advice about staying at home
In line with current evidence that outdoor activity poses less risk of transmission of the virus than indoor activity, we are considering if and how we could make changes to allow people to leave their home more often and/or for longer. This would still involve staying in their local area, staying within their own household group (or any extension of this that may be permitted in future), maintaining physical distancing from those not part of their own household, and maintaining good hygiene at all times. We will also consider whether the evidence supports any changes to the restrictions on certain outdoor work activities, provided that associated safe working practices are in place.
B. Changes to advice about visiting other households
We are considering if and how we could make changes to allow people to meet with a small number of others (the number is under consideration) outside their own household in a group or "bubble" that acts as a single, self-contained unit, without connections to other households or "bubbles". It is possible that this option would be introduced first for outdoor meetings, ahead of any change to permit indoor meetings of the bubble.
Existing rules for households would continue to apply to these groups. In particular, everyone in the group would have to observe good hygiene, maintain physical distancing from people not part of the group, and remain vigilant for symptoms of COVID-19. If anyone in the group developed symptoms of the disease, those people would need to self-isolate immediately for 7 days, and the remainder of the bubble for 14 days.
This change would not apply to people currently in the "Shielded" group, who remain at the highest risk from the virus, and who are being asked to continue to observe the additional restrictions currently in place. We recognise that this will become increasingly challenging as advice changes for other people. We are committed to an honest conversation with our citizens who are shielding and with their families about the support they need, the evidence about the risks they face, and maintaining a quality of life while shielding.
Special consideration will also be given to those who are not shielding but are at heightened risk, for instance people over 70, pregnant women, and people with certain medical conditions.
Although similar approaches have been applied in other countries, each country's experience of the virus may differ, and we have to be sure that this, or any other measure we consider, would fit Scotland's particular needs and circumstances.
C. Options for resuming care and support for those most affected by the current restrictions
In order to suppress the virus and ensure that the NHS would not be overwhelmed, some NHS and community support services had to be suspended as part of our emergency response. We are considering whether and how we can resume these services, provided this can be done safely and without unacceptable risk.
The options under consideration include resuming certain NHS Scotland elective procedures and screening services, and the phased re-introduction of a wider range of social care support such as therapeutic group activities.
Here and in all our decision-taking, we are considering how we can ensure that changes are made in a fair and ethical manner, including to mitigate avoidable disproportionate impacts on particular groups: for example, those living with cancer, or the significant numbers of older and disabled people and their carers, who have seen services diminish or stop completely.
D. Changes affecting businesses that have been subject to restrictions or closure
Many workplaces have closed as a result of regulations, while others have followed public health guidance and closed. Before deciding to change restrictions in a phased and controlled way, we must consider how the seven principles set out in the Framework would apply to different businesses and their activities, and what the wider implications might be for health, the economy and wider society - for example, considering the consequences for transport, supply chains and more general compliance.
We will engage and work with business and trades unions to support the reopening of certain workplaces as soon as possible, but only when it is safe to do so. This will be on the basis of a solid framework of guidance that supports safe working and is consistent with our Fair Work approach.
Our work to put these structures in place will allow us to make considered decisions on where and when particular business activity can restart safely. Our initial assessments are likely to focus on construction, manufacturing and retail, where less work can be done remotely, as well as elements of outdoor and rural work, where transmission risks are likely to be lower. We are working closely with these sectors. For example, the Construction Leadership Forum is developing a five phase plan to support the restart of that sector, when it is safe to do so.
Our considerations will also cover related issues, such as managing the use of transport and the re-opening of schools. We are also aware that requirements will need to be applicable to different types of workplaces, so what is required in a factory will be different to an office or a shop. Our guidance on safe working will reflect clear underlying principles about the basic requirements of physical distancing, hygiene and broader health and safety considerations, and this must then be developed for specific environments, by employers and trades unions. We will take due regard of the approach being developed by the UK Government in our own consideration of the appropriate way forward and we will continue to engage with Scottish businesses and trade unions on that.
But to be clear, restrictions are likely to remain in place for some business activity for some time to come, especially where safe working is harder to achieve. Changes already adopted in many sectors, for example working from home and the use of digital technology, are likely to persist as part of the 'new normal'.
E. Options for allowing pupils to return to school
We are considering a phased approach to returning pupils to school, when it is safe to do so. We do not consider it likely that schools will reopen fully in the foreseeable future. Indeed, we are not yet certain that they can re-open at all in the near future.
The Education Recovery Group (ERG) has been established, chaired by the Deputy First Minister. The ERG brings together the Scottish Government with our Local Government partners and key stakeholders including teacher unions and parent representatives. The first main task for the group is to model what a phased approach to school re-opening will look like. The ERG has been asked to consider the 'what' and 'how' of phased re-opening, but not the 'when' as this will be a Ministerial decision guided by the evidence on progress in suppressing the virus. Ten workstreams have been established with partners (reporting to the ERG) to consider the wide range of policy, practical and operational issues related to re-opening schools.
Subject to that work the options we are examining for return to school are:
i. Developing a chronological list of priority groups who would return to school in an agreed order (for example vulnerable pupils and pupils who are in transition, e.g. from P7 to S1 or those about to commence national qualification courses in S3-6).
ii. Modelling a new approach to schooling for the foreseeable future. To enable ongoing physical distancing, most pupils are likely to have a blend of in-school and in-home learning. This would include attending school part-time in blocks of a few days or even a week at a time, to enable deep cleaning of schools between groups. Learning at home will be supported by consistent, high-quality online materials which will be developed to support the curriculum.