Coronavirus lockdown: We need greater clarity about the rules – Steve Cardownie

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon giving a briefing on the spread of coronavirus (Photo by Michael Schofield/WPA pool/Getty Images)First Minister Nicola Sturgeon giving a briefing on the spread of coronavirus (Photo by Michael Schofield/WPA pool/Getty Images)
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon giving a briefing on the spread of coronavirus (Photo by Michael Schofield/WPA pool/Getty Images)
The Scottish Government has been doing an admirable job but the public needs to know what is optional and what is compulsory, writes Steve Cardownie.

No less than 25 pages out of the 48 that made up Monday’s Evening News mentioned coronavirus. Some of the pages were entirely devoted to the subject and others carried articles that directly mentioned the virus.

This clearly indicates that this is probably the greatest crisis the vast majority of us have had to deal with in our lives, with concerns centred around our own wellbeing and family members as well as to society as a whole – but confusion still reigns within government circles about what is required of the public.

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I have been trying to play my part in the lockdown but I must say that there is a great deal of disquiet surrounding some aspects of what is allowed and what is not. I have listened avidly to government pronouncements both at Westminster and Holyrood and I am a little perplexed at the contradictory statements emanating from both. We are told that many restrictions are based on government advice or guidelines but lack clarity about what is actually against the law. For instance, is it against the law to leave your home to exercise more than once a day or is it simply advice? My information is that it is not against the law as it applies to Scotland but therein lies the confusion.

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Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, stated that exercise should be confined to between half an hour to an hour a day, which he deemed reasonable – on what basis? Matt Hancock, the UK Secretary for Health and Social Care, said on the Andrew Marr show on Sunday that sunbathing in a local park for instance was against the rules, only to have that questioned the very next day by Robert Jenrick, the Housing and Communities Minister, who has also said that public parks should only be closed if social distancing rules cannot be maintained.

What shopping is ‘essential’?

The UK Government then confirmed that sunbathing is banned but that it is up to police to use their discretion when enforcing the rules. So, is it OK to sit on a park bench facing the sun but not OK if you are sitting on the grass doing so as this might constitute sunbathing?

We are “allowed” to leave our homes for essential shopping – but who determines what is essential? Supermarkets are obviously still open so it can be safely assumed that the goods on sale there are deemed essential as is the case with off-licences selling alcohol and, as all other shops appear to be closed, even if someone wanted to go out and buy a jacket they couldn’t in any case.

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What applies to Scotland? The Scottish Government webpage on the issue states: “Protect yourself and others, stay at home, only go outside for essential food, health and work reasons, stay two metres (6 feet) away from other people, wash your hands as soon as you get home.” The police have been given new powers to enforce these rules and if you are outside without a good reason, they can instruct you to go home. If you refuse they can impose a fixed penalty (fine.)

I have spoken to many people who are still unsure about what they are allowed or not allowed to do, questioning the meaning of government advice, rules or guidelines and looking for clear unambiguous statements on what applies to them.

The vast majority of people are well aware of the dangers surrounding this extremely contagious virus and have been taking steps to ensure that they play their part in dealing with this crisis, but there is a risk that contradictory information will undermine their efforts and that confidence in the authorities will diminish.

‘A challenging time’

Some media outlets are doing little to clear up this confusion particularly when implying that some Westminster coronavirus ‘rules’ apply to the whole of the UK, which they do not. The Scottish ­Government is doing an admirable job in the most trying of circumstances but should make it abundantly clear which new rules are ‘advice’ and therefore optional and what is the ‘law’ and therefore compulsory.

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The Scottish Government’s Constitutional Secretary, Mike Russell, stated when introducing the new laws: “While the majority of people are doing the right thing, these regulations provide the police with emergency powers to enforce social distancing when necessary.”

The Chief Constable, Iain Livingstone, added: “This is a challenging time for people who have to adjust their daily habits and everything we do will be done in a fair, reasonable and proportionate manner. Those who persistently and blatantly defy the law must know we will enforce the law.”

It is comforting to know that the police will operate with a light touch when applying the new laws whilst making it perfectly clear that those who deliberately flout them will be adequately dealt with, which is a more responsible attitude to that which appears to been applied in some parts of England.

Covid-19 is taking lives at an alarming rate and new legislation was obviously required to deal with the crisis at hand. These restrictions, are temporary measures, and it is surely not too much to ask that we do what we can to ensure their ­success and save lives.