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Chamber and committees

Question ref. S6W-00514
Asked by: Stephen Kerr, Central Scotland, Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party
Date lodged: 7 June 2021

Question

To ask the Scottish Government for what reason it has determined a different appropriate social-distancing limit in places of worship from that in the hospitality sector, and what differences there were in the risk assessments used in each case to reach this position.

Current status: Answered by John Swinney on 16 June 2021


Answer

COVID-19 is first and foremost a public health crisis, and the measures to combat it have been necessary to save lives. But those measures also cause harm, including for our Faith and Belief Communities.

We know that the virus spreads between people and we’re particularly concerned when it spreads between members of different households. Over time, the virus has mutated to spread more quickly. The Delta variant is even more transmissible than previous variants.

In order to reduce transmission of the virus, we have to reduce opportunities for the virus to spread. There have been varying degrees of restrictions implemented and adjusted as the pandemic has progressed and our understanding has developed. Ministers are obliged to keep these restrictions under regular review to ensure that they remain necessary and proportionate in responding to the pandemic, This is particularly important given that many restrictions significantly interfere with fundamental rights as enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights (e.g. Article 9 - freedom of religion, Article 8 - right to private and family life., Article 2 protocol 1 - right to education, Article 1, protocol 1 – right to property, and to the peaceful enjoyment of possessions – which protects every type of business).

The Scottish Government considers a wide range of evidence when making assessments to inform decisions on restrictions. Details of impacts from economic, general wellbeing, mental health and anxiety and other non-Covid related health harms can be found in the four harms dashboard which is updated weekly and can be found at https://data.gov.scot/coronavirus-covid-19/ . Further information about the Scottish Government’s decision-making framework can be found in the paper published on 11 December 2020: Coronavirus (COVID-19): framework for decision making - assessing the four harms. This paper provides an overview of key analysis and evidence (and links to more detailed evidence) in support of decisions on how best to limit the effects of COVID-19. In this document, we describe how the four harms approach works in practice and present evidence under each of the harms to illustrate how we used the four harms to make decisions about levels, activities and restrictions.

Protective measures, or non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs), are a critical tool in the management of the epidemic. Our levels system is a crucial aspect of this and it works by limiting members of different households from interacting in different settings and activities. Decisions must be made about which activities and settings to restrict in order to achieve the required suppression of the virus. When different restrictions would have similar effects on transmission, difficult decisions must be made about which restrictions to apply, informed by the impacts on the four harms of the different options, as well as impacts on particular groups in society, including those with protected characteristics.

We understand that different sectors or interest groups will often want the restrictions that affect them, and their fundamental rights, to be eased more quickly and will perhaps argue that there is little or no evidence of transmission in that particular setting or activity, or that it is less risky than other comparable settings or activities facing lesser restrictions. Although we do take the transmission risk of different settings and activities very much into account, we take a broader view across all four harms in order to make judgements about the sequencing of any easing. As an example, the importance placed on the education and wellbeing of children led to a decision on the opening of schools as a priority.

The easing of restrictions, has to be balanced with the need to keep the virus suppressed. If we opened everything and lifted all restrictions too early, the virus would resurge. Notwithstanding the positive impact of the vaccination programme, this could lead to exponential growth in hospital admissions and serious health harm. So at this stage, with all adults yet to be offered both doses of the vaccine, we still need to keep some restrictions in place.

As the First Minister set out on 1 June, we do have cause for optimism. Emerging evidence is providing us with a firm basis to believe that in the next phase of the pandemic, expected during summer 2021, we will be able to deal with the virus differently and less restrictively. There should be much less need for legal restrictions on different settings and activities and more scope for people to apply personal judgement as the risk of harm from COVID recedes and much greater normality is restored to our lives.

The Scottish Government is reviewing physical distancing including the impact on places of worship, who are subject to physical distancing based capacity, and an announcement expected in the near future. The review will consider the faster spreading Delta variant as well as the effectiveness of the vaccination roll out. Sectoral guidance will be further updated to reflect the outcome of the review, including proposals for as clear a route as possible to the reduction/removal of physical distancing, enabling people and organisations to plan effectively for a full reopening. We continue to regularly engage with Faith and Belief Communities regarding the scope for further easing.