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Fear of second COVID spike drives Sturgeon's caution over easing lockdown

Credit: PA

Nicola Sturgeon today set out what she calls the 'route map' which Scotland will use to navigate its way out of lockdown.

The document reflects the way the First Minister has approached the coronavirus crisis from the start, and her governing style.

It is carefully crafted, closely calibrated, and as clear as one could expect from a publication of this kind amid a fast-changing pandemic.

Above all, the plans laid out for a phased lifting of lockdown north of the Border are cautious. Caution is Nicola Sturgeon's COVID-19 watchword.

Ms Sturgeon's political opponents have suggested that by not going along with the UK government's lockdown easing timetable she has been playing politics, nationalist politics.

The SNP leader and First Minister strongly refutes this and has refused - as she did today - to criticise the moves laid out for England (Wales and Northern Ireland make their own plans) by Boris Johnson some ten days ago.

And, if you look at both the UK and Scottish documents while there may be differences of detail, and timing, they are fundamentally similar.

The key to both is phasing in a return to what we have come to call the 'new normal'.

Credit: PA

The restrictions on our lives will be lifted gradually, based on the evidence of whether the disease is under control.

So in Scotland from the end of next week, garden centres will be able to open, you can meet people from another household (only with social distances).

You can sunbathe (if the Scottish weather allows), and some non-contact outdoor sports can begin. Golf was mentioned. Fishing. In a lighter moment, croquet featured.

But that is about it for now. There will be phased - that word again - return to some outdoor building sites, with social distancing measures, but not a full scale return to construction, which has continued in England.

Schools will not begin until after the Scottish holidays, on August 11, but under a 'blended model' - some pupils in and others at home. Social distancing again to the fore.

Ms Sturgeon's opponents in the Tory party - north and south of the Border - may find her approach frustrating and say her slower timetable is an implicit criticism of the Prime Minister.

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The First Minister, her party and other political opponents - those on the Left - do not see it that way. They think caution is crucial.

That does not mean there is universal support for Ms Sturgeon's measures. At the heart of them - as with UK plans is the capacity to 'test, trace, isolate and support'.

That plan to find out who has coronavirus has now been called just 'test and support (less scary?) though they will still do the tracing, and the isolating.

If the First Minister's phased plan is to succeed it is vital there are enough tests and enough tracers to be able find out where the virus is, and who has it.

If they can do that she and her government can then move, they hope, from Phase 1 through to Phase 4, which might look something like what we might call the 'old normal'.

However, there is a "fear" - the word the First Minister herself used - that they will not be able to do so if people do not continue to follow her guidelines - 'stay at home' message remains, though it is to become 'stay at home, where possible'.

Ms Sturgeon told MSPs today she "felt like crying" when she saw pictures of hundreds of people out on Portobello beach, near Edinburgh, yesterday in the sun.

She asked, almost begged, people to give her strategy more time to work. Just a little more time, she was saying, and we can begin to ease things in a way you will notice.

Credit: PA

One of the key challenges for Ms Sturgeon - as it is for Boris Johnson, more similarities - is whether people will listen, or if she (and he) have lost the population's support.

If they have, the consequences could be very serious.

Asked today why she was not going faster to bring back non-urgent NHS work, the First Minister said her "fear" was a new spike in COVID-19.

The "risk or a second wave, the risk later this year, is absolutely real," she told Holyrood.

And that, her supporters say, and many of her opponents also accept, explains her caution.