People will have to guard against coronavirus for the “foreseeable future”, the Deputy First Minister warned – despite plans to lift all remaining legal restrictions on August 9.
John Swinney said that while restrictions should be eased, the country needs to adjust to “the position of essentially living with Covid in our society”.
He said the “big protection” offered against the virus by the vaccine programme should allow for more measures to be relaxed on July 19.
The Scottish Government hopes to move the country to the lowest tier of restrictions – Level 0 – from that date, before lifting all remaining legal restrictions three weeks later.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told MSPs on Tuesday that the Government’s assessment is “that it would be possible and proportionate to lift the major remaining legal restrictions on August 9”.
That comes against a backdrop of rising infection levels, with 2,167 new cases announced on Tuesday – the highest daily total since early January.
Mr Swinney, who is also the Scottish Government’s Covid Recovery Secretary, said on Wednesday that restrictions remain in Level 0 but after August 9 “we obviously move to a position of much greater normality”.
He told BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme: “Even after August 9 what we will be saying to people is although there may not be legal restrictions in place, we do ask members of the public to exercise due care and attention and caution.”
He suggested the use of face coverings could continue “in some circumstances” after that date, along with ongoing hand hygiene.
Mr Swinney said: “While cases are high and they may grow, we are also, on a daily basis, adding to the protection by the rollout of the vaccination programme. And that is a tremendous strength and protection for the public.
“But we also will have to rely on the public taking due care and attention for the foreseeable future because Covid is going to be with us for a long time to come.”
He said that by this weekend, all adults aged 50 and over and all those with underlying health conditions should have had two doses of vaccine.
When considering if restrictions can be eased and then lifted, he said ministers have to look at the rollout and effectiveness of the vaccination campaign, as well as how many people are in hospital.
This, he said, is part of a “new strategic intent which is about suppressing the virus to a level consistent with alleviating its harms while we recover and rebuild for a better future”.
National clinical director Professor Jason Leitch also stressed that caution is needed ahead of the changes proposed for August 9.
He told Sky News: “That’s only six-and-a-half weeks away at a time when numbers are rising, so we’ve got to be cautious, we’ve got to be balanced.
“I think it’s a hopeful journey, a hopeful light at the end of the tunnel.”
Prof Leitch explained that vaccination means the link between infection, hospitalisation and death is changing, saying the second wave of the virus saw about 10 in every 100 people with Covid needing hospital treatment but this has now reduced to four in every 100.
He stressed: “We’ve got to keep it in perspective because you can’t keep the economy closed indefinitely, so that balance is really, really hard to strike.”
He warned that if “we got a variant that got us in trouble or hospitalisations became out of control or our hospitals became overwhelmed again”, experts would have to advise that lifting restrictions on August 9 was “no longer appropriate”.
Prof Leitch said: “I really hope that doesn’t happen.”
However he also said if “things go really well” there is the potential that “we can move in another direction” with the date possibly brought forward.
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