Scotland’s extension of restrictions suggests two-week circuit breaker does not work, say experts

Bill Gardner
·12-min read
Scotland's First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has announced a new five-tier lockdown system under which thousands of pubs and restaurants face damaging restrictions - Euan Cherry
Scotland's First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has announced a new five-tier lockdown system under which thousands of pubs and restaurants face damaging restrictions - Euan Cherry
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter

Earlier this month Nicola Sturgeon promised her mini-circuit breaker would be a “short, sharp” shutdown of Scottish pubs and restaurants to bring coronavirus under control.

For only 16 days, the First Minister said, bars and restaurants would be restricted from serving alcohol inside and closed altogether across the country’s central belt, which includes Glasgow and Edinburgh and is home to 3.4 million people.

Little more than two weeks later, Ms Sturgeon announced a change of plan.

To the anger of the hospitality industry, she extended the restrictions for a further week. And on Thursday, she announced the measures would be replaced – rather than relaxed – with a new five-tier lockdown system under which thousands of pubs and restaurants face damaging restrictions for the foreseeable future.

The news was devastating for Scotland’s struggling pubs, already on their knees.

Emma McClarkin of the Scottish Beer & Pub Association, said: “We were told that these measures were to be ‘short’ and ‘sharp’ but now the Scottish Government have gone back on that, leaving operators feeling betrayed.

“Scotland’s pubs and bars have repeatedly been subject to some of the most penalising restrictions in the world, but without the evidence to back it up. The situation cannot continue.”

According to industry calculations, two-thirds of hospitality businesses could be mothballed or go under in the coming months, with more than 50 per cent of jobs lost.

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon - Reuters
Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon - Reuters

In an unprecedented step, industry bodies in Scotland have now launched legal action aimed at overturning the proposals with a judicial review.

Throughout the pandemic Ms Sturgeon has been lauded by her supporters for her strong leadership, often said to have led the way for others including Prime Minister Boris Johnson to follow.

However, the First Minister's claim earlier this week that her mini-circuit breaker lockdown appeared to be working, despite her decision to extend and then replace it, has raised eyebrows among experts. 

They said that the short-term nature of the clampdown on hospitality, coming into force only on October 9, meant it was too soon to say whether it had an effect, given the incubation period of the novel coronavirus.

Even Ms Sturgeon’s scientific advisers said on Thursday it was “too early to detect any impact on transmission from the restrictions introduced on October 9”. 

Although the pace of spread of the coronavirus is slowing, scientists have suggested a ban on household mixing may be largely responsible for this, rather than the forced shutdown of pubs and restaurants.

And they added Scotland’s approach may be a lesson to other nations: that once a country enters a so-called ‘circuit breaker’ shutdown, it may be difficult to escape.

A man stacks away chairs outside The last Drop pub as it closes in The Grassmarket, Edinburgh - Andrew Milligan/PA
A man stacks away chairs outside The last Drop pub as it closes in The Grassmarket, Edinburgh - Andrew Milligan/PA

Hugh Pennington, Emeritus Professor of Microbiology at Aberdeen University, said: "There's the old argument that if we hadn't done (the mini-circuit breaker), cases would have gone up faster. But that's a guess, and the figures haven't come tumbling down.

"They were always going to have difficulty in knowing how effective it was because the figures wouldn't have come through to really give them an indication as to whether it was having any effect at all."

Prof Pennington criticised Ms Sturgeon for claiming the restrictions would be in place for only 16 days, given the time-lag in recording positive cases, adding he suspected it had been cast as a short-term measure to avoid a major backlash from businesses.

"It's got to be statistically significant, it's the figures coming down that they're looking for. To expect that would happen within 16 days was unrealistic. At a guess, I'd say her reason for saying that was so she could say 'I'm going to make things tough, but it's only for 16 days', to get people to buy into it.

“If you close the pubs, you're going to stop pub outbreaks. You're addressing little bits of the transmission route, but not really getting at the fundamentals, which is making sure people who have the virus, and their contacts, are kept away from everybody else by self-isolating.

“They said it will be a couple of weeks and we'll turn the corner. But many people have doubts about that, because as soon as you release from it, you go back to square one. There's too much virus about for the effect to be so big that you really start driving the numbers down.”

Ms Sturgeon disagreed during Thursday's press conference.

“We are not back at square one,” she insisted. “We have made progress in tackling the virus and we have more tools at our disposal now to control it.

"The figures that I report are depressing ... but we do think the sacrifices are making a difference because cases are slowing."

According to the data, the rate of spread across Scotland has indeed slowed in recent weeks, but not by enough to get the virus under control, as the First Minister had hoped.

In the week leading up to Friday October 9, the average number of new cases increased to 907, 52 per cent up on the previous week.

General manager Michael Rogerson rings for last orders in the Horseshoe Bar in Glasgow - Robert Perry/Shutterstock
General manager Michael Rogerson rings for last orders in the Horseshoe Bar in Glasgow - Robert Perry/Shutterstock

It was being driven by sharp rises in the affected areas, notably Ayrshire and Arran and Lanarkshire, where the rate had more than doubled in the course of a week. 

According to the latest data from Public Health Scotland, the rate of increase has slowed across all but two health boards – Borders and the Western Isles –since the new measures were introduced.

In the week leading up to Friday, October 16, the average was 1,171, which was an increase of 29 per cent on the previous week. On Thursday the increase was an average of 1,255 cases, up by 7 per cent.

In the densely-populated central belt areas, the rate has stabilised in Greater Glasgow and Clyde, and Ayrshire and Arran, and is now beginning to fall in Lothian and Forth Valley. While the case rate is still rising in Lanarkshire, it has slowed from a 109.8 per cent weekly increase to 18.8 per cent in the past week. 

Nationally, the reproduction R rate was estimated on October 21 as being between 1.2 and 1.5, a small reduction on the previous week.

However, in spite of the First Minister’s interventions, many important numbers are still pointing in the wrong direction. For instance, test positivity – on all measures – has been increasing since the beginning of September.

According to criteria set out by the World Health Organisation (WHO), an epidemic is judged to be under control when less than 5 per cent of samples test positive for coronavirus.

In Scotland, test positivity rose above 5 per cent on October 6, and remains above this level despite the new restrictions.

Deaths are also on the rise with 81 deaths in the past week, double the number of deaths the previous week. The proportion of cases in the vulnerable 60+ age groups has also increased in recent weeks.

Case numbers in the 0-19 age range have declined slightly in the past week, but numbers have remained relatively static in the key 20-39 age range despite the shutdown of their social life.

According to Professor Linda Bauld, Professor of Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland’s nationwide ban on people visiting other homes which came into force on September 21 was likely to be responsible for the slowing case rates, rather than the closure of pubs and restaurants.

"That's not just my view, it's lots of people's views, because the incubation period for the virus is on average five to eight days before somebody gets symptoms, but it can be as long as 14 days, which is the whole period hospitality has been closed," she said.

"So you wouldn't really start to see an impact on cases of the hospitality restrictions until probably next week sometime.

"I completely understand why businesses are demoralised. If you're a business owner, at the moment I would imagine you're thinking you can't really trust the Government, and anything they introduce will potentially be extended.”

Ms Sturgeon has been keen to draw a distinction between her two-week lockdown limited to pubs and restaurants and the full national ‘circuit breaker’ proposed by Sage scientists on September 21, during a virtual meeting attended by the Scottish Government’s chief medical officer, Gregor Smith, and his deputy, Nicola Steedman.

However, Professor Matt Keeling, who led the modelling of the circuit breaker for Sage, said it would be “tricky” to see any meaningful results at the end of any period of restrictions lasting only two weeks.

“You might see it in testing by the end of a two week period, but you would only just be seeing it,” said Prof Keeling, professor of maths at the University of Warwick.

“I think at that point, you'd have to sort of take it on trust. We do know that any form of short-term closure is going to reduce the number of cases.”

At her press conference Ms Sturgeon said she was introducing the new tiers system, rather than continuing with the mini-circuit breaker, in part because she believed mirroring the approach in England would help public understanding of the rules. 

She used Chris Whitty's suggestion that Tier-3 restrictions in England might not be severe enough to drive down infection rates to justify adding an upper more draconian tier.

As things stand currently, much of the Central Belt, where the vast majority of Scots live, will be placed into the second-top level when the new system comes into force, meaning continued heavy restrictions on pubs. 

Under plans set out on Thursday, hospitality businesses in the second-highest level would not be able to serve alcohol at all but are permitted to serve food, although for many a ban on alcohol sales will mean opening is not worth their while. In the top tier, hospitality businesses would be shut completely.

Even under the middle tier, which Ms Sturgeon said currently applied  broadly to the rest of the country, alcohol could only be served indoors with a "main meal".

It could be served outside without food, but with the Scottish winter approaching, it is unlikely high numbers will be tempted into beer gardens.

Talks between Ms Sturgeon's officials and hospitality representatives will be held in the coming days, the Scottish Government said on Thursday, before the system is finalised.

Even under the middle tier, visiting others' homes would be banned, which has already led Scots to question whether there will be any prospect of a family Christmas.

The document was published the day after Jason Leitch, the Scottish Government's National Clinical Director, caused a major row after he warned Scots to prepare for a "digital Christmas" and dismissed hopes of large-scale festive gatherings as "fiction".

Ms Sturgeon will announce next week which tier will apply to each area. Under the harshest restrictions, which it is not currently envisaged that any area will  initially enter,  pubs, restaurants, hairdressers, non-essential shops and gyms would close, although there is a presumption in favour of schools staying open. 

The system brings in significant restrictions on travel, which was not a feature of the mini-circuit breaker, with no non-essential travel  not allowed in or out of areas in the fourth or fifth-highest levels.

Under the top level, a "requirement to stay at home" could be imposed, with Ms Sturgeon not ruling out legally-binding orders to remain indoors without a good excuse, with those going outdoors to be challenged by authorities.

Holyrood will be asked to approve the plan on Tuesday. Just one other Holyrood party will have to back the proposals for them to be adopted, with the pro-independence Greens a usually reliable ally for the First Minister.

Reacting to the new system, Stephen Montgomery, a landlord and spokesman for the Scottish Hospitality Group, said the sector was being unfairly targeted.

Mr Montgomery said: “The Scottish Government’s current approach is impacting on people’s lives and livelihoods with devastating consequences. They need to sit down and work with businesses before it is too late and save an industry that is the third biggest employer in the country.

“The new financial support package, while welcome, is the equivalent of being abandoned at sea with only a lifejacket. We cannot survive if the intention is to impose these restrictions indefinitely. Since March, pubs and restaurants have effectively been closed for 20 weeks – whether by force or by the nature of the restrictions – and have only been trading for 12 weeks. No other sector has faced this level of sacrifice."

The First Minister has also faced criticism from businesses for the financial support offered to businesses. She pledged £40 million for those affected by her 16-day restrictions, with funding extended by almost £20 million to cover the extra week.

Businesses condemned the package as completely inadequate, with initial grants of £3,000 on offer to those forced to close for 16 days, and £1,500 for those able to stay open but affected by the changes, for example if they were a supplier to a closed company.

While the Scottish Government budget was increased by £700 million a fortnight ago by the Treasury for coronavirus response measures, Ms Sturgeon has complained that she has not received the same "open ended" commitment to additional cash that reflects promises of support given to English businesses.

UK Government sources have said they have been  left puzzled by the First Minister's attacks on Chancellor Rishi Sunak, saying the £700 million had been an "up-front" advance, and should it run out, usual mechanisms around the transfer of cash from the Treasury to the Scottish Government, under the Barnett Formula, would kick in.