Alister Jack says Scotland must stay 'in lock step' with UK over exit strategy

A constitutional row is brewing over the coronavirus lockdown, with Nicola Sturgeon saying she was treating the public “like grown-ups” by vowing to give detail on an exit strategy next week, while Scottish Secretary Alister Jack insisted Scotland must stay “in lock step” with the UK.

Alister Jack

The two governments jointly agreed to extend the lockdown for at least three weeks, but the First Minister has said she is willing to loosen social distancing measures in Scotland faster than the rest of the UK if scientific advice backs the move.

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And yesterday Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed UK ministers had themselves considered imposing a “London-specific” lockdown three weeks ago, before opting for nationwide restrictions.

The UK government continues to argue it is too early to discuss an exit strategy, with ministers instead setting out five tests to ensure the NHS is not overwhelmed by a second wave of infection.

The First Minister said she has been working closely with the UK government, and insisted that Scotland would stick to UK-wide guidance as much as possible.

But Ms Sturgeon repeated that she would not hesitate to take a different course if scientific advice said it was necessary.

Speaking to the Today programme on the BBC, the First Minister said: “I’m not going to set out next week the date on which lockdown will be lifted.

“What I’m going to try to do is set out the decision-making framework that we’re operating in, so that we are treating the public like grown-ups that they are.”

Ms Sturgeon added: “If I was being advised, and if the judgment I was applying to that advice told me that I had to do something different to the rest of the UK because it was right and necessary to continue to control the virus in Scotland, of course I would do that.”

She said she will be driven by what advice, science and her own judgment is telling her, but that “the more consistency we can have across the UK in how we do these things, the better”.

“I’m not sure I am saying that much different to the UK government, to be perfectly frank, but I’ll speak for myself rather than trying to speak for anybody else,” Ms Sturgeon said.

“None of us have all the answers, I certainly don’t have all the answers. But I do think, as First Minister, in the difficult times I’ve got a duty to try to be as open with people as I can be about what I do know, what I don’t know, about what we’re trying to do to find the answers to the questions we don’t yet have.”

Scottish national clinical director Jason Leitch said on Thursday that he would advise the First Minister to diverge from the rest of the UK when coming out of lockdown if it was in the nation’s interest.

“As we come out of the curve there may be some differences,” he said. “Orkney looks quite different from Oxford Street. It’s important to do what applies in your context.”

But Mr Jack said it was not the time to “muddy the message” by talking about lockdown exit strategies.

‘Unnecessary confusion’

The Scottish Secretary said it was important that the two governments are “in lockstep on coming out of lockdown because the economy does not respect borders”.

He said: “I see many similarities between what’s happening in the Highlands and what’s happening in Cornwall, and I don’t think the stats are much different between Edinburgh or Newcastle.”

Fellow Scottish Conservative MP John Lamont also said yesterday that “significant differences between the nations of the UK” in the coronavirus response had “caused unnecessary confusion and anxiety”.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Rishi Sunak said he would extend the government’s furlough scheme by another month until the end of June following the extension of the lockdown for another three weeks.

This allows employees to get 80 per cent of their salaries up to a maximum of £2,500 a month. Experts had warned that companies would have to start the statutory 45-day consultation period on redundancies unless the measures were extended yesterday.

Mr Sunak said: “It is vital for people’s livelihoods that the UK economy gets up and running again when it is safe to do so, and I will continue to review the scheme so it is supporting our recovery.”

Mr Jack also warned that poverty caused by a “broken economy” could kill more people than Covid-19 if the lockdown goes on too long.

“If we stay in lockdown for too long, the damage to the economy will then damage livelihoods,” he told the BBC.

“I would hate it if we came out the other side and the poverty that came from a broken economy killed more people than Covid-19. We do know from previous analysis of recessions and depressions that poverty kills.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has called for clarity about what plans are being put in place to lift the lockdown when the time is right after the UK government announced on Thursday it will be extended for another three weeks.

And yesterday morning, Mr Starmer suggested the government was in “limbo” because ministers were holding off on making key decisions on the lockdown until Prime Minister Boris Johnson is fit enough to return to work.

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