It is now 16 months of constraints on our lives that we have had to put up with in our fight against this deadly virus, and finally we are getting to the point of some normality returning.
Inevitably there are those with concerns that this is moving too far, too fast. Already infection rates are rising, and they will rise faster still as a consequence of what has been announced.
Yet the scientific and medical advice is that this is the right step to take: better face a surge in cases in the middle of summer than in the autumn or winter when the pressures on the NHS are greater.
All this is only possible because of the remarkable success of the UK vaccination programme – the best amongst leading economies. It also reflects, as the UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid has stated, an assessment of the balance of risks.
Yes, relaxing restrictions will mean more Covid cases, more hospitalisations, and perhaps even more tragic deaths. Against that has to be weighed the cost of maintaining restrictions – not just the economic cost (horrendous as that is), but the toll on health: more deaths from cancer, stroke and heart disease, and the dreadful impact of a mental health epidemic.
Covid is not going away, and we will have to learn to live with it in the long term. Sajid Javid drew a comparison with seasonal flu, which strikes every year. Many people catch it; some end up in hospital; some, sadly, will die.
But we do not close the country down as a result, and we have to start approaching Covid in a similar fashion, in the knowledge that the majority of the population will be protected by double vaccinations.
Incidentally, those who claimed that Javid said that Covid was ‘like flu’ were misrepresenting his comments, perhaps deliberately. Covid is of course far more deadly, as the Health Secretary would be the first to recognise.
While England is moving to ‘Covid freedom’ in just over two weeks’ time, Scotland lags behind. We are aiming for the whole country to be in Level 0 on July 19, but that leaves many restrictions still in place. August 9 is the next target date for relaxations beyond that. That leaves many businesses, particularly in the hospitality and events sector, deeply frustrated that England is opening up whilst they cannot plan ahead with any certainty.
We are now in a situation where Scotland’s Covid rates are the highest in the UK, indeed the worst in Europe. According to the World Health Organisation, six out of ten of the European regions with the highest rates are right here in our country. I am sure we all know people who have contracted Covid in the last few weeks, even if they are not suffering seriously as a consequence.
None of this has happened by accident. It has come about a direct result of policy failures on the part of the SNP government, in three key areas.
Firstly, we have not been vaccinating the population quickly enough. Whilst the percentage of those with both jags is now over 50 per cent, too many in the younger age group are not being reached. It was only at the start of this week that every NHS board in Scotland started offering a ‘walk-in’ vaccination service, when this should have been done much earlier.
Secondly, we are seeing extensive failures in the vital Test and Protect system, which is simply unable to cope with the recent surge in Covid cases.
According to the latest data, for the week ending June 27, fewer than 30 per cent of positive cases were interviewed within 24 hours. A quick response to outbreaks is vital if we are to control the spread of the virus, but in the vast majority of cases it is taking days before individuals at risk are being contacted. We have a system which is overwhelmed, and failing to provide the protection necessary.
The third area of failing is in relation to public messaging. We all know that the recent spike in Scottish cases is largely attributable to fans travelling to London for the recent England-Scotland Euro match, without adequate social distancing.
Yet in advance of that event there was no discouragement of travel from the Scottish Government – fans were simply told to find somewhere safe to watch the game if they did not have a ticket for Wembley. The public comments from SNP ministers were stark in contrast to what they had to say to say about Rangers fans celebrating their historic league victory a few weeks before.
We now live with the consequences of these failures. South of the Border, people will be enjoying their freedom from restrictions. Weddings, concerts, theatre performances, football matches and church services can all now get back to normal. Workers can return to their offices. The economy can start moving again without hindrance.
But here in Scotland, these moves are still weeks away, at best. In the meantime, we will see ongoing economic damage from restrictions at what should be the busiest time of year for our vital tourism and hospitality sectors.
Throughout most of last year, Nicola Sturgeon enjoyed a reputation for skilful handling of the Covid pandemic, even a grudging acceptance from those normally hostile to the SNP that she was performing well.
With Scotland now being held back as a direct result of her government’s actions, that reputation is eroding fast.
Murdo Fraser is a Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife