Speaking at the Scottish Government's daily coronavirus briefing in Edinburgh, she also raised concerns about an increase in passengers using concessionary travel and car drivers on the roads in the last week.
Ms Sturgeon said that while “real progress” has been made on tackling the spread of the virus and reducing the R number, or infection rate, to below one – down from three at the start of lockdown – there could be no relaxing of measures in the forseeable future as the gails were “too fragile”.
She reminded the public that only essential journeys should be made, and that households should not mix and admitted that the news that there was unlikely to be any easing of restrictions, would dismay many people struggling with lockdown.
According to the latest statistics, the number of people who have died after testing positive for the virus in Scotland has risen to 1,475, up 60 from 1,415 yesterday. A further 11,353 people have now tested positive for Covid-19, up by 319 in 24 hours, with 1,748 people in hospital with confirmed or suspected Covid-19, and of these patients, 109 are in intensive care, a reduction of five.
The government is due to review its coronavirus lockdown strategy on May 7, and last week published a framework document for how restrictions might be lifted, but today Ms Sturgeon said she had to deliver a “tough message”.
“I have to be straight with you, it may very well be too early, even this time next week, in any meaningful way, to safely lift any of the current restrictions,” she said.
While the fall in the R number was “real and very positive progress” she said she was “not confident that the R number is very far below one yet, and that means any easing up at all in the current restrictions - either formally by government decisions or informally by people becoming a bit less compliant as we all get more and more weary and frustrated - would quickly send it back above one.
“Indeed there are reports from Germany that their R number is rising again after a slight easing up there has taken effect.
We’ve worked very hard as a country to bring down transmission of the virus and we’re definitely seeing results of those efforts. Fewer people are now in intensive care than two weeks ago and hospital admissions, though fluctuating, are on a slowly reducing curve. Transmission in the community has been reduced significantly because of lockdown, but it remains higher in settings such as care homes.
“The point I am making today is not an easy one, but it is an essential one. The progress we have made is real and it is significant, but it is still very fragile. The margins we have for ensuring the virus doesn't take off again are really, really tight. That means we must be very cautious at this stage."
She said the public had been "superb" at sticking to the restrictions and she was “grateful” for that, but there had been evidence of more people making journeys, with more people on the roads and more trips made using concessionary public transport.
She said while both of these increases were from a low starting point, they are still a “source of concern.”
“The number of people using concessionary transport increased by almost one sixth last week, for car traffic it’s increased this week by about five per cent compared to last week, and on some town and city roads traffic has been ten per cent higher. Think about whether or not you’re more active than at the start of lockdown and ask yourself why that’s the case – was your journey really essential?
“You might feel you deserve that after weeks of restraint, which I understand, but it all adds up and the fact remains that if everyone starts easing off the virus will quickly take off again and have devastating consequences for all of us.
“As things stand, our progress is too fragile for us to let up. The longer we stick to lockdown the lower that R number will be reduced and the lower it goes the more scope we will have to east the lockdown measures in future.”
Asked about the UK government adjusting its criteria for moving out of lockdown from avoiding the risk of a second peak of infections, to avoiding a second peak that would overwhelm the NHS, Ms Sturgeon said the shift was not one she agreed with.
“Not overwhelming our NHS is a critical objective which is why ‘protect the NHS’ is one of the things we say every day,” she said. “While that’s a necessary objective I don’t think it’s a sufficient objective on its own.
“There’s just over 100 people in Scotland in intensive care but I know that we have a surge capacity, if we needed it, of 585 intensive care beds. If our only objective was not overhewlming our NHS I could say we could afford to quadruple the number of people in intensive care and we still wouldn’t be overwhelming our NHS.
“But if we allowed the virus to spread at a rate that resulted in four times the numbers being in intensive care then the virus would be spreading a lot faster and that would result in many more deaths.”
She added: “It’s not enough to say ‘don’t overwhelm our NHS’ because we can change, within certain constraints, the capacity of the NHS. You also have to have an objective that says ‘keep the virus as supressed as possible’, which is why we’ve said all along we want to slow the spread and to save lives. That’s what has to drive us as we go into the next stage of manage it.”
On the idea of groups of up to ten people being able to meet, she said it was a concept the government was considering. But added: “My assessment right now is that the margin we’ve got is so narrow that anything like that, right now, might edge us over that crucial R one number.
“There’s a very fine difference between the R number being just under one and cases are in decline and being just over one and cases are rising again. That is what makes these judgements so difficult. It’s not music to anybody’s ears, but it’s really important that I explain these decisions. I understand people’s desperation and frustrations and desire to extend the people they’re seeing.
“We will try to get to these things as quickly as possible, but in short we need to keep supressing this virus to give us the headroom to start to do some of this and we haven’t supressed it sufficiently. We need to get it lower then room for manouvre becomes more comfortable.”
She added: “My desire, a strong burning desire, is to get back to normal as quickly as possible but that is equalled by a strong burning desire not to allow this virus to claim any more lives than are absolutely unavoidable, so those two things have to be balanced.
“They’re horrendously difficult judgements, but they have to be made rationally and I hope everyone understands that.”
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