Coronavirus (COVID-19): review of physical distancing in Scotland - June 2021

Sets out the outcome of a review of physical distancing in public places, taking account of the science, and the current and projected state of the epidemic in Scotland in light of our vaccine roll-out and the ‘four harms’ of the virus.

Executive summary

Physical distancing has been a crucial measure in limiting the spread of COVID-19 and we, along with most other countries in the world, have used it to good effect to help to manage the epidemic, as recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO). The WHO advises to stay at least one metre away from others to avoid coronavirus transmission[1] and there is evidence indicating that there is a substantial difference in risk of exposure between maintaining a two metre distance as opposed to a one metre distance - perhaps as much as two to ten times - although this will vary depending on the context.[2]

Whilst we know that physical distancing is an effective measure in helping us to stop the spread of the virus, we know too that, like other protective measures, it can cause broader harms. For many people, not being able to be in close contact with loved ones during the pandemic has been difficult and upsetting. For businesses, adhering to physical distancing requirements has meant a lengthy period of being unable to operate at full capacity, with associated implications for the service they can provide to their customers, their ability to make profits and to offer employment opportunities.

Our approach to dealing with the virus has been, and will continue to be, grounded in managing the "four harms" – that is, the direct and indirect health harms of the virus and the social and economic harms linked to the measures required to keep it under control. We have kept our approach to physical distancing under regular review and will continue to do so, to ensure that it remains necessary and that, weighing up the other harms, it continues to be proportionate to the public health harm caused by the virus and that the human rights engaged are respected and protected.

As we have made progress in suppressing the virus and achieving a reduction in the rate of morbidity and mortality caused by it, particularly through our progress in the vaccination programme, we have been able to amend our guidance on physically distancing from friends and family in an outdoor or indoor private setting (e.g. a home or garden.) The First Minister announced this change on 11 May to take effect on 17 May and she also made a commitment at that stage to conduct a wider review of the need for physical distancing in public places.

This document sets out the outcome of that review, taking account of the science around physical distancing, the current and projected state of the epidemic in Scotland in light of our vaccine roll-out and the "four harms" of the virus. Although physical distancing is connected to other protective measures, such as social gatherings, this review has been focussed on the physical distancing restrictions and the significant impacts these have on individuals and businesses. However due to the significant link with physical distancing requirements, and similar issues to be considered regarding when it is deemed safe to revise these, we will also be removing the outdoor social gathering rules at the same time as the physical distancing requirement is removed outdoors. The gathering rules will remain in place indoors until the physical distancing requirement is removed for those settings. The ongoing need for other protective measures is kept under regular review as part of the overall assessment of the state of the epidemic, and any changes to these will be guided by both clinical advice and scientific evidence.

We have undertaken both a Business and Regulatory Impact Assessment (BRIA) and an Equality Impact Assessment as part of our review of physical distancing. All proposals which may have an impact upon business or the third sector should be accompanied by a BRIA. BRIAs should be completed for legislation and regulations (including voluntary regulation), as well as policy changes. In addition an Equality Impact Assessment (EQIA) is required to assess the impact of policies or practice against the needs in the Public Sector Equality Duty.

Decisions on how and when to ease distancing measures are ultimately matters of finely balanced judgement. Following this review our assessment is that, although we remain in a situation where we must continue to ease with caution, we can now set out a pathway to easing and then removing the current physical distancing requirements. Our judgement is that the most appropriate way to balance both the risks and the benefits is to follow a staged process of easing of restrictions, focussing on the less risky outdoor settings first. The staged process for the lifting of legal restrictions on physical distancing - which will be conditional upon reviews ahead of the respective changes - is as set out below. These are indicative dates at this stage, and final decisions will be taken in the reviews preceding 19 July and 9 August.

Date Levels Restriction Physical distancing
19 July Conditional on a review of the epidemic ahead of this date All areas move down to Level 0 Reduce outdoors to 0m Reduce indoors to 1m
9 August Conditional on over 40s being fully vaccinated and a review of the epidemic ahead of this date All areas move beyond Level 0 (Levels restrictions lifted) All physical distancing regulations lifted



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