The most severe restrictions that we have all tolerated, even when it’s made life exceptionally difficult for us personally, are now firmly in the rear-view mirror.
People across Scotland and the UK deserve our utmost thanks and appreciation for everything they have done throughout the pandemic to fight this virus. The sacrifices have been truly astounding, when you stop to think about what we have collectively gone through.
However, now, it is right that we move forward. We are in a different phase of the pandemic.
The balance has to tilt further in favour of moving forward. We have to make more progress back to normality.
People are sick of these restrictions. Continuing with widespread, far-reaching impositions would only have risked public confidence and buy-in to the overall approach.
Scotland and the UK’s vaccine scheme has been such a resounding success that we are no longer stuck in lockdown limbo, under constant threat of returning to the strictest of rules about where we can travel and who we can meet.
For some time, my party have argued for a safe but swifter easing of Covid restrictions. We had strongly made the case for a move to level zero from today and I’m relieved to say the SNP government accepted those calls, with relatively minor modifications.
We had feared another Nicola Sturgeon Covid statement that took two steps forward and one back, where the goalposts were shifted at the last minute, and we would all have to put up with a few more weeks of delays.
But thankfully, the SNP listened to the Scottish Conservatives and business leaders, who were all seeking certainty and clarity about the immediate road ahead. We hope that will continue and they will once again listen regarding the next crucial date on our calendar – the 9 August date when almost all remaining restrictions are expected to be lifted.
It’s vital that the government gets Covid back under control so there are no delays to that plan. People have sacrificed more than enough to Covid, and for far longer than any of us expected.
I hope that date remains the same but it wouldn’t be a surprise if it does not. The SNP try to set up each major decision on Covid as a point of differentiation – or even a clash - with the UK government. They have used the pandemic not only to campaign for votes but as a tool to provoke grievances with the rest of the UK.
In their narrow-minded framing, the choice to ease restrictions at a slightly faster pace is set up as a choice between Scotland’s cautious approach and England’s reckless folly.
Nicola Sturgeon has tried throughout this pandemic to paint a picture that both of Scotland’s governments are at odds, taking vastly different approaches. That has been exposed time and again as nonsense. In fact, the SNP’s decisions have been remarkably similar. And overall, there are points where both governments have been successful and points where they have made mistakes.
We entirely reject the way she seeks to frame Covid decisions. Easing restrictions at a faster pace is not a choice between caution and recklessness. It’s not a choice between Scotland or England’s way, as much as the SNP would like that to be the case.
When we push for restrictions to be eased more quickly, we believe it can be done safely and our motivations are straightforward – we want more emphasis to be placed on the other crisis facing us, not only the pandemic.
Covid has created deep-rooted and widespread issues across society. It has exacerbated existing problems to unsustainable levels. When we push for a speedier exit from Covid restrictions, what we are considering is mental health, physical health, family finances, young people’s education, livelihoods and jobs.
The consequences for mental and physical health during this pandemic have already been catastrophic. Jobs and our economy have taken a real hit that will take years, maybe even decades, to fully recover from. Young people have faced disruption to their education like no other generation since the Second World War.
Absolutely, at the peak of this pandemic, we had to put tackling the virus first, ahead of all those other pressing considerations.
But now that the vaccine is working, that it has greatly reduced hospitalisations and deaths, we have to rebalance our approach in favour of tackling those big issues.
At this point in the pandemic, we need more emphasis to be placed on jobs, on limiting how wide the attainment gap between rich and poor pupils grows, and on restoring people’s mental health and getting them the appropriate treatment.
It doesn’t stop there. The backlogs of NHS operations and in our courts have reached jaw-dropping proportions. That is where our focus should now fall – on remobilising every aspect of society and driving back the damage that Covid has done across the board.
To do that effectively, we need the SNP government to step up to the plate because, if they do not keep Covid under control, we’ll be forced to put all those pressing issues on the backburner.
Right now, Test and Protect standards have been lowered and the system is still buckling under the strain. The vaccine rollout has slowed to the lowest level in months. At a crucial moment, the SNP have been posted missing and it may well risk the date of Scotland’s ‘Freedom Day’, the day we exit Covid restrictions for good.
For the last 16 months, people have gone above and beyond to do what was expected of them. Now it is time for this SNP government to deliver and hold up their end of the bargain.
Douglas Ross is Scottish Conservative leader