Ministers may have to 'make the judgement of Solomon' on how to lift lockdown, John Swinney says
Deputy First Minister warns of competing priorities over how to lift lockdown while protecting the health service
John Swinney has warned that there may be “competing priorities” over decisions such as reopening schools, protecting the NHS and allowing people to see more of their loved ones as the Scottish Government decides how to lift the coronavirus lockdown.
The Deputy First Minister also said the Scottish Government is designing a new system to assess the public’s opinion on what should be done to ease restrictions.
But he warned that ministers might have to “make the judgement of Solomon” between lifting restrictions on civil liberties introduced in the face of pandemic and protecting health services.
Swinney appeared before Holyrood’s COVID-19 committee to answer questions on the government’s handling of the pandemic and the ‘framework for decision making’ document published last Thursday.
Swinney said that whatever the government does next would have to be guided by public opinion, but that ultimately it would be decided by the infection rate of the virus.
He said that the R0 – the scientific term for the infection rate of the virus – is “the absolutely critical factor” when deciding when lockdown can be eased.
“We have to essentially wait until we have headroom from the reduction in the R0 and then have the process of a debate with members of the public about what might be the most important steps to take to move on from where we are today,” he said.
The Scottish Government has said that the R0 should be “consistently below” one before lockdown could be lifted.
Right now it is estimated that the R0 in Scotland is between 0.6 and one, but First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said it is probably higher than that in care homes.
Swinney talked about the need for there to be “headroom” between the infection rate and the capacity of the NHS to handle COVID-19 patients.
He said: “For example some people would like to...see high street shops open a bit more, and they might say we also want to see the schools open. And there might not be enough headroom between R0 and the point at which the health service is overwhelmed to do both.
“So, we have to make judgments and explain why we consider a particular judgement to have been the valid judgement.
“But that's where the engagement with the public is so critical, to make sure that we have the opportunity to understand public opinion and to respond accordingly.”
On the same point, he later added: “So, we may have to make the judgement of Solomon about what will be the priorities that we decide to pursue.”
Swinney said that in order to gather public opinion, the government is designing a new “mechanism” to make sure ministers “hear what the public are saying”.
He said: “This is not a routine government consultation document. We can’t wait 12 weeks for members of the public to have their opportunity to feed back.”
He added: “It’s really important we get that direct feedback from the public. We are looking actively just now at mechanisms that would allow that more vigorous public interaction with the document.
“We hope to be able to say some more details on that in the course of the next few days so that there is a very detailed channel for members of the public to input their thinking, that we can gather back in a prompt and efficient fashion so that the government can be really closely aware of what members of the public are thinking about the different options with which we are wrestling.”
Asked if it was the government’s objective to pursue an objective of “suppressing” the virus or “eliminating” the virus, as has been successful in countries like New Zealand or Vietnam in the absence of a vaccine, Swinney said the government is “trying to do both”.
He said: “The objective of the government is to ensure that we eliminate coronavirus. The terminology I would use and have used, is to suppress the virus as far as we can and to use techniques such as test, trace and isolate to secure that objective.”
Swinney added: “There isn’t a level of COVID-19 presence in our society that ministers are keen to tolerate, that’s not our objective. We want to protect the population from COVID and we will do all that we can through the measures that we take to do so, whether that involves a vaccine or does not involve a vaccine.”
He also expressed doubt over the potential implementation of a “bubble” system to allow people to see up to 10 close friends or family.
He said: “I might have my bubble of ten people for Wednesday afternoon, but I might have a different bubble of people for Thursday afternoon, and there’s absolutely no way the police can say if I’ve got two bubbles or have I just got the one.
“So it gets inevitably a bit more complicated and complex. So we have to be very mindful as we take the next tentative steps as that opportunity arises.”