Our strategic intent remains to suppress the virus to the lowest possible level and keep it there, while we strive to return to a more normal life for as many people as possible.
To realise this intent, many factors must work together to influence the trajectory of the epidemic. We have structured our response in this Framework around six key elements:
- the quickest practical roll-out of vaccinations, in line with advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI)
- the most effective use of testing and contact tracing, including maximising community and workplace testing and integrating our testing plans with vaccine roll-out
- applying proportionate protective measures (rules and guidance) to suppress transmission of the virus
- effective measures to manage the risk of importation of the virus from areas of high prevalence, including travel restrictions and managed isolation
- supporting individuals, businesses and organisations to adhere to protective measures
- providing care and support to mitigate the harms of the crisis
To achieve our intent, the process of easing current restrictions will be informed by data to give us confidence that it is safe to proceed. We want to be confident that there will be no resurgence of the epidemic or overwhelming of the NHS. This conditionality is key given ongoing uncertainties, both about the status of the epidemic and the impacts of making any changes to restrictions.
We will analyse data and intelligence to assess when there is likely to be sufficient room to allow further easing of restrictions without causing a resurgence of the virus. Monitoring the impact of easings on the R number will be critical to that: when the R number moves above one, the virus begins to grow exponentially again. If we move too fast, and open up settings and activities too early, then we risk triggering exponential growth again, in which case we may need to rewind. We understand the costs involved in that and are keen to avoid them. We will also be mindful of advice from the World Health Organisation (WHO) in guiding our easing process.
While we know that some factors have tended to push the R number up - particularly the emergence of new, more transmissible variants – we expect, over time, other factors to begin to push the R number down. In particular, while its precise effect remains uncertain and may be affected by new variants, we expect the vaccination programme to reduce transmission of the virus and create room to enable the easing of restrictions while keeping the virus suppressed. This is another reason, beyond protection from disease, that it is so important to vaccinate as many people as possible as quickly as possible: it will help to create the headroom to ease restrictions and return to a more normal way of life. Our plans for future vaccinations are therefore integral to this Framework and are set out in the section: vaccinations.
Other factors can also support the easing of restrictions. Our approach to testing should help us to limit further the spread of the virus, and if we are able to maintain the strong levels of adherence to restrictions and public health measures that we have seen to date then that will also help to keep the R number down and therefore enable greater easing of restrictions.
Consistent with advice from our COVID-19 Advisory Group, as already announced, our first easing has been to enable a partial return to schools for Primary 1-3 and for a very small proportion of senior phase students requiring access to schools for practical subjects, as well as the reopening of early learning and childcare settings. Provided that we are confident that the virus continues to be suppressed, we will then look to open up more of the education system starting with the rest of Primary school and more senior phase secondary pupils back in the classroom for part of their learning.
Once the data indicate that it is safe to proceed further, we will also make a number of gradual easings within Level 4, for example, in relation to limited outdoor social contact, a limited return to places of worship and some limited elements of non-essential retail.
When it is safe to proceed further, our next stage will be to start easing restrictions more generally and then to manage the epidemic going forwards through the application of levels on a geographical basis – local, national or regional (for example, across a group of Local Authorities) - as appropriate to the state of the epidemic. Our decisions will need to take into account prevalence and geography and be clear and comprehensible. They will also need to consider issues of enforceability and people’s travel patterns.
The content of the levels will be subject to periodic review in light of epidemiological developments to ensure that the measures within them remain proportionate and necessary. In practice, this means that they need to be effective in suppressing the virus and that they should also, as far as possible, minimise the broader harms caused by the epidemic more generally.
As part of the update of this Framework, we have considered the contents of the level restrictions, the indicators used to allocate areas to levels and process to do this, learning from the experience of having applied the levels in practice since the start of November. Further information is set out in the section: protective measures and our levels approach.
We are also considering, ahead of returning to the Levels system, the appropriate geographical approach. For example, it was clear that whilst in some cases Local Authority boundaries were effective, travel to work areas, spill-over between neighbouring areas at different levels, population density and rurality had an impact on the effectiveness of the system at suppressing the virus. We will set out our conclusions and details when we publish our updated Levels tables in March.
In due course, once we have vaccinated as many of the population as possible, we hope that the virus will be suppressed to sufficiently low levels to allow much more normality in people’s lives. To preserve this, we will reduce the risk of spread into Scotland through necessary but proportionate border measures. For a period, this will mean that we will have to forgo some of the benefits of cross-border travel for all but essential purposes in return for the benefits of having fewer restrictions on our lives within Scotland.
Looking further ahead, once the situation of the pandemic internationally has improved significantly, and further progress has been made in rolling out vaccinations, we would expect to be able to ease those border restrictions.
Ultimately, we plan to reach the position where COVID is no longer considered a serious threat to public health and, while some public health measures may remain in place, our lives will have been restored to much greater normality with our economy and society open once more.
The following sections set out the integral elements of the Strategic Framework beginning with our vaccine roll-out.