Rural Scotland could go straight to Level 2 after lockdown, says Nicola Sturgeon

Parts of Scotland could go into a less restrictive Covid level than others when lockdown is lifted at the end of April, the First Minister has revealed.

Nicola Sturgeon had told Parliament on Tuesday that when the full lockdown ends on April 26, Scotland would enter a new tiered system at level three.

However, at her Covid briefing on Wednesday she suggested rural areas may go straight into level two.

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Ms Sturgeon also said she and education secretary John Swinney were trying to maximise the number of pupils who would return to schools from March 15, and that blended learning may allow more to get back to classrooms more quickly than the April date she had previously set out.

All school pupils are not due to be back in classrooms until April.

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The First Minister had been criticised for failing to “give people hope” after she announced her route map out of lockdown in Holyrood. But she insisted on Wednesday that any firm dates would be her “making it up”.

“Of course people want to know when this will all be over, so we can do all the things we miss doing,” she said. “I desperately want that too and I’m more confident we’re getting closer to that.

“The days of being able to hug loved ones and socialise in a normal way are not too far away, but in terms of being able to put a hard and fast date on that right now – if I was to give you a fixed date right now I would be pretty much making it up and I don't think that’s the approach I should take.

"But we have every reason to hope that come the summer, life will be much better than it is just now.”

Ms Sturgeon said that by the end of April, all of Scotland would “go down to at least level three”.

But she said: “There may be parts of the country at that stage, perhaps more rural communities, going straight to level two meaning the opening up can happen faster. And, of course, all parts of Scotland, we hope will be able to move to lower levels of restrictions quickly in May and June.”

The First Minister admitted it was inevitable comparisons would be made with the timing of the easing of restrictions in England.

But she said: "The plans we’ve set out are roughly two weeks behind plans for England – last year as we came out of lockdown the dates we set out then were also a little behind England, which caused the same understandable frustrations in some quarters, but looking back our approach enabled more of the country to remain open trading for longer before new restrictions came in.”

On schools, Ms Sturgeon refused to set out just which age groups would return on March 15 and which would have to wait until April 19, after the Easter holidays. But she said the government was looking closely at virus transmission now early years pupils had returned.

“We will set out on March 2 what the next stage of school return will be,” she said.

"In summary we want to get as many back to school in that second phase as possible, and I really hope that will be the remaining years of primary and also I hope a significantly increased number of secondary pupils at least having blended learning.”

The apparent move on levels showed, claimed Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross, that Ms Sturgeon had been “rattled by the backlash to her plans”.

He said: “Nicola Sturgeon gave people next to no hope of when restrictions would ease and now she’s having to furiously backtrack. She seems to be on the verge of a climb-down over her lockdown plan already.

“After Scottish Conservative calls for a U-turn on the slow school reopening, she dodged questions about return dates. She’s now suggesting the loosening of restrictions to level two might happen earlier and, in another masterclass of political spin, trying to rewrite history and claim that was the plan all along.

“When people just want a clear message of hope and certainty, they’re getting less clarity and more confusion from the First Minister.”

Meanwhile, parents campaign group, UsForThem Scotland, demanded the government match a commitment by the UK Government, which has announced more than £700 million will be spent on summer schools and other initiatives to help children who’ve missed months of education.

Spokeswoman Jo Bisset said Scottish ministers here should spend the equivalent – roughly £70m – doing the same or risk placing Scottish children at a disadvantage.

“It feels like things are really motoring now in England, with a cross-party consensus that kids need to be back at school, and significant investment in making up for lost time," she said.

“In Scotland it’s the opposite – watching proceedings in the Scottish Parliament over the last few months you’d think children weren’t even an afterthought.

“If £700m is going into a catch-up plan for England, then the equivalent has to be spent here, whether that’s through the Barnett formula or anything else.”

Asked about the investment at her daily Covid briefing, Ms Sturgeon said the Scottish Government had already announced financial support for local authorities to help children catch up on missed schooling. She said the Barnett consequentials from the £700m were “likely already taken into account” in government spending.

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