Coronavirus: Confusion over advice as over-70s told to prepare to 'reduce social contact'

Scots over the age of 70 will be asked to “reduce social contact for their safety” in the next few weeks to protect themselves from coronavirus, it has emerged, amid confusion and anger at the way the UK Government is putting out information on the outbreak.

Scotland's Health Secretary Jeane Freeman (left) and UK counterpart Matt Hancock are taking different approaches as to how best protect the over-70s from Coronavirus.
Scotland's Health Secretary Jeane Freeman (left) and UK counterpart Matt Hancock are taking different approaches as to how best protect the over-70s from Coronavirus.

The UK's Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced that elderly people are likely to be asked to self-isolate for up to four months - news that emerged from anonymous briefings.

However, Scottish Health Secretary Jeane Freeman made clear that this would not involve isolating the elderly, but instead "asking them to reduce social contact".

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Dr Jason Leitch, the National Clinical Director for the Scottish Government, said there had been “confusion” and said there was “no plan to ask over 70s to completely socially isolate as with the symptomatic”.

UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock enters Downing Street alongside Chief Medical Officer for England Professor Chris Whitty (right)

In a post on twitter, Dr Leitch added that “we are working on guidance for the over-70s to be asked to reduce social contact for their safety. So no bingo, no pubs… but family visits and neighbours [will continue]”.

Mr Hancock described the plans for over-70s to be forced to stay at home as a "very big ask", but said it is a measure for their own "self-protection".

Asked about the proposed new guidance, Ms Freeman said: "The additional measures that we've always talked about are about reducing contact for those over 70 and in their eighties, asking them to reduce their social contact because they are one of the groups who are most at risk of this virus making them seriously ill.

"The other group is people who have underlying health conditions whose immune system is suppressed.

"It's not isolation, it's asking them to reduce social contact.

"We don't want people who are elderly to be stuck in their homes alone not contacting anyone, with their families not able to be in touch with them and to help them.

"What were saying to them is, reduce your contact."

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon made clear that the Scottish Government would continue to seek to act together with the UK Government and other devolved administrations.

Quoting Mr Leitch's tweet, Ms Sturgeon said: "These are decisions for The Scottish Government but we are seeking to take them on a consistent UK four-nations basis.

"We will set out the detail of exactly what we are asking people to do, and when, in an open and orderly way."

The next four-nation meeting of the emergency Cobra committee is scheduled for Monday.

In an earlier Twitter post, the first minister wrote: "Giving clear and consistent information to public at the right time on #coronavirus is vital. Governments' media strategies must reflect the importance of that.

"This is not a run-of-the-mill political issue.

"The Scottish Government will set out advice to the public in an orderly manner."

The news of the potential isolation of elderly people was briefed anonymously to journalists overnight and sparked criticism over how the UK Government was communicating policies and advice.

Asked about how the news emerged, Ms Freeman said: "It's not how we would do it," adding: "Governments should be coming and explaining these things really clearly.

"Overnight briefing, background briefing, unattributed sources is not the way to ensure that the public are understanding what we are trying to do and our working with us to do that."

"What we have done since the start is that the First Minister holds a press briefing as soon as decisions are taken, make sure that is clearly articulated.

"I tell the parliament what is happening so all our MSPs know, then we have clinical voices - because they are the important voices; Catherine Calderwood (chief medical officer) Jason Leitch and others - on programmes around the country answering questions and explaining what we're doing.

"The reason that's important is because we need people to trust that the actions we are asking them to take make sense and then follow those actions."

On Sunday morning, the Scottish Government updated its policy on testing people showing symptoms of coronavirus, effectively scaling it back to NHS staff and those admitted to hospital.

Explaining the new measures, Ms Freeman said: "If you've got any of the symptoms of Covid-19 - that's the dry persistent cough or a fever - stay at home for seven days.

"You don't need to go to your GP, you don't need to phone 111. Stay at home. You won't be tested.

"If you are better at the end of those seven days, go back to your work, go about your normal business.

"If your condition worsens, then you should go to your GP."