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Coronavirus: Scotland could soon allow small gatherings

Nicola Sturgeon today suggested people in Scotland could soon be allowed to meet a small ‘bubble’ of friends or family outside of their households under plans to ease the coronavirus lockdown. 

The Scottish First Minister said other countries are beginning to look at expanding the definition of ‘households’ to allow small gatherings of people and that Scotland could do the same. 

The SNP leader said any such scheme would only work if people stuck to meeting the same group each time as she said she understood the ‘anguish’ of not being able to see loved ones. 

She also suggested people who live alone could ‘match up with somebody else who is on their own or a couple of other people’.

It came as the Welsh government announced some of its stay-at-home measures are being toughened up but also followed Ms Sturgeon in publishing a roadmap for how to eventually get out of lockdown. 

Northern Ireland has similarly signalled it could lift restrictions independently of the rest of the UK with Downing Street now under growing pressure to set out its own strategy for getting life back to normal amid fears England could be left in limbo. 

UK ministers, led by Health Secretary Matt Hancock, continue to insist the focus must remain on stopping the spread of the virus but the actions of the devolved administrations mean Number 10 could ultimately be forced to change tack.

Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford said the aim of his government’s end-of-lockdown ‘framework’ will be to ‘find a way for people in Wales to live and work alongside coronavirus’ and to enable a ‘gradual return to something resembling normal life’. 

But he also moved to tighten current guidance on staying at home to make sure people stick to it and do not linger outside after completing essential tasks like shopping or exercise.

The Welsh government advice is being tweaked with the requirement for people not to leave the place where they live now becoming a requirement ‘not to leave or remain away from that place’. 

A further crackdown on people visiting second homes in the country is also being considered with the Welsh government asking the police if extra restrictions are needed. 

But some rules are being formally loosened with ‘click and collect’ services allowed to open as long as they apply two metre social distancing rules. 

Meanwhile, rules are also being relaxed for people with particular health conditions or disabilities so they can leave home for exercise more than once a day. 

It is hoped this will help families with children with learning disabilities and autism in particular. The changes will come into effect from tomorrow.     

Nicola Sturgeon today said the Scottish government is looking at plans to allow people to meet with a ‘bubble’ of friends or family 

Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford today announced coronavirus lockdown rules are changing in Wales in order to stop people staying outside for too long

Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford today announced coronavirus lockdown rules are changing in Wales in order to stop people staying outside for too long

Matt Hancock, pictured in Downing Street today, has repeatedly refused to set out the UK government's plan for easing lockdown measures

Matt Hancock, pictured in Downing Street today, has repeatedly refused to set out the UK government’s plan for easing lockdown measures

Welsh government tightens stay-at-home rules

The Welsh government today announced it is changing some of its coronavirus lockdown rules to make sure people return to their homes quickly after going outside. 

Currently people are allowed out to get food, medicine, for exercise or to go to work but there are concerns that some are flouting the rules and lingering outside longer than they should. 

As a result, the stay-at-home guidance is being tweaked with the requirement for people not to leave the place where they live now becoming a requirement ‘not to leave or remain away from that place’. 

A further crackdown on people visiting second homes in the country is also being considered with the Welsh government asking the police if extra restrictions are needed. 

But some rules are being formally loosened with ‘click and collect’ services allowed to open as long as they apply two metre social distancing rules. 

Meanwhile, rules are also being relaxed for people with particular health conditions or disabilities so they can leave home for exercise more than once a day. 

It is hoped this will help families with children with learning disabilities and autism in particular. 

The changes, due to come into effect from tomorrow,

 

Ms Sturgeon told BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme that any proposal to let people see friends or family would have to be based on them seeing the same group each time. 

Yesterday she revealed her framework for relaxing lockdown measures in Scotland but warned some restrictions could stay in place until at least the end of the year.

The First Minister stressed no decisions have been made on such a ‘bubble’ arrangement and that she wants to have an open conversation with the public about the way forward. 

Ms Sturgeon said: ‘I know from my own parents who are not seeing their grandkids just know, I understand the anguish of that.

‘We’re all missing seeing our loved ones so we all want to get beyond that as quickly as possible.

‘Every country is going through these decisions, none of us are through this pandemic yet, but some countries are starting to look at slightly expanding what people would define as their household – encouraging people who live alone to maybe match up with somebody else who is on their own or a couple of other people to have almost kind of bubbles of people.’

She added: ‘And the key thing there is, if you’re seeing maybe one or two more people outside your household, it’s got to be the same people on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis so you’re still limiting the ability for the virus to transmit.

‘Now, none of these are fixed decisions yet, but these are all the kind of things we’re trying to work through.

‘What we’re trying to do is to do is, how do we get a semblance of normality back into our lives because the lockdown – it is essential that people stick with it just now – but it’s having consequences of its own.’

In Belgium, experts are reportedly considering allowing private gatherings of 10 people on weekends – but it would have to be the same people each week.

The First Minister also said the Scottish government will increase talks with councils about children returning to school. The need to keep social distancing in place will put an upper limit on class sizes, she said.

She said: ‘So if it’s the case that we need to keep kids in school two metres apart from each other then that will put an upper limit on how many people can be in a classroom.

‘So do we have to take classes divide them into two, where half of the class is there one week, the other half the other week or one half in the morning and the afternoon? These are the kind of things where we’re having to think through.’ 

Mr Drakeford today set out an initial blueprint for how to lead Wales out of the coronavirus lockdown. 

He said the devolved administration’s approach would be guided by seven tests designed to assess when and how stay-at-home restrictions are lifted. 

Key worker testing programme runs out of tests on its first day

The government’s new online system for booking coronavirus tests closed just hours in an opening-day farce today as Ministers raced to meet their 100,000 daily target.

The website had launched this morning with two options, allowing key workers to book one of just 1,000 home testing kits or apply for a slot at a drive-through centre.

Some ten million key workers and their households are now eligible for the tests, but applications shut at 10am, with the website saying people could no longer register.

Earlier, people were told at 8.30am that today’s allocation of home kits – which only went live at 8am – had been issued, and they could only ask for drive-through tests.

The Department of Health and Social Care had expected home kits to run out by 10.30am, with Whitehall sources saying the rush today confirmed the high demand. Ministers are hoping to be able to provide 18,000 home test kits by the end of April.

Earlier, some people took to Twitter to complain that the process was ‘not simple’ or that they could not find a category for their job role, despite Health Secretary Matt Hancock claiming the process was straightforward and ‘a bit like booking a flight’.

 

Mr Drakeford said: ‘Our approach to date has been one of lockdown. We have taken unprecedented steps to protect everyone, but particularly those most at risk from serious illness.

‘This has helped the NHS prepare and cope with coronavirus and, even though we have sadly seen more than 640 people die, it has helped to save many more lives. But this strategy comes with its own costs to people’s wider health and wellbeing and long-term costs to our economy.

‘We are keeping these regulations under constant review. We know coronavirus will be with us for a long time yet but we want to see whether there are things we can do while we continue to tackle the virus and while the search for better treatments and a vaccine continue.”

Mr Drakeford’s seven questions include whether easing a restriction would have a negative effect on containing the virus, whether loosening a measure could be easily reversed and whether it has a positive economic benefit.

The Welsh approach will be underpinned by a ‘Wales-wide programme of surveillance, case identification, and contract tracing’.

He added: ‘We will need to have some sort of restrictions in place for some time yet to continue to control the spread of the virus and reduce community transmission. This framework will help us determine what is right for Wales.

‘There is a long road ahead of us towards recovery to pre-pandemic levels, but if we continue to work together, I hope we will be able to make changes to the restrictions and see a gradual return to something resembling normal life.’

As well as setting out a path to the end of lockdown, Mr Drakeford said some measures needed to be strengthened now to stop the spread of the disease. 

He said: ‘The restrictions are staying in place, which mean you must stay at home to save lives and protect the NHS.

‘Over the last few months, we have taken unprecedented steps to protect everyone, but particularly those most at risk from serious illness. This approach has helped the NHS prepare and cope with coronavirus and it has also helped to save many lives.

‘The changes we are introducing supplement the rules already in force but they respond to some challenges being faced in parts of the country and by families throughout Wales.

‘Our message has not changed – anyone can get coronavirus, anyone can spread it. So please, stay home, protect the NHS, and save lives.’  

UK edges back to work as traffic increases by 10 per cent

Traffic on Britain’s roads is on the rise for the first time since the lockdown began with levels increasing by up to 10 per cent compared to earlier this month as the country edges back to work and shops, building sites and factories reopen.

Figures from the AA show show more car journeys than at any point over the past few weeks in a further sign the struggling economy is slowly restarting after the UK first entered coronavirus restrictions at the end of March.

The numbers of cars on London’s roads is steadily rising as photographs of the A40 at Hangar Lane at rush hour this morning showed more motorists on their way to work, with similar scenes on the M3 and M4. 

The images also correlate with AA breakdown data, with previous weeks seeing calls for 6,000 breakdowns a day – but this week shows 8,000, suggesting an increase in traffic.

The data emerged as homebuilder Persimmon announced it is to restart operations on its sites, following Taylor Wimpey and rival Vistry Group which said it will be re-starting next week, while luxury car maker Aston Martin Lagonda also plans to restart operations.

 

Current UK rules state you should only leave your home to get food, medicine, for exercise or to go to work. 

But there have been signs in recent days that some Britons are beginning to tire of the lockdown with more cars on the UK’s roads and more people visiting parks. 

The Welsh government said the new rule change telling people to go home quickly was necessary so that people realise they ‘cannot remain outside to do other things’ once they have finished their shopping or exercise. 

Officials in the devolved administration are also in discussions with the four Welsh police forces to determine whether existing measures designed to stop people travelling to Wales to visit second homes are sufficient. 

There is already a ban on such journeys but there are concerns that people are still breaking the rules to get to a rural bolthole. 

If the police forces ask for a strengthening of existing measures the Welsh government is expected to grant their request.

Other changes coming into force tomorrow include extending social distancing requirements to cafes accessible by the public in hospitals and to those responsible for canteens in schools, prisons and for those used by the armed forces. 

Mr Hancock today lost his cool when he was grilled over the UK government’s failure to set out its strategy for easing the coronavirus lockdown.  

The Health Secretary said at yesterday’s Downing Street press conference that the government needed to maintain the ‘clarity’ of the stay at home message in order to further slow the spread of the disease. 

But furious Tory MPs have demanded the government ‘bite the bullet’ and set out its strategy to give businesses hope that measures could soon be lifted. 

The Health Secretary was asked this morning during a bruising interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme why the UK government is refusing to spell out how it will ease restrictions. 

But he claimed ministers had ‘released a framework’ as he referred to the government’s five tests which need to be met before lockdown can be reduced. Those tests include a guarantee there will not be second peak of the outbreak. 

But presenter Mishal Husain interrupted and told the Health Secretary: ‘You know that is different. We know about your five tests.’ 

An angry Mr Hancock then hit back and said: ‘It is not different. It is not different because if you read the Scottish document it is essentially a reiteration broadly of those five tests.’   

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