Nicola Sturgeon has refused to rule out shutting schools or following Wales into a “firebreak” lockdown as she prepares to unveil her tiered coronavirus strategy later this week.
The first minister will hold talks with political leaders at Holyrood on Tuesday and plans to publish a framework by the end of the week setting out her plans to guide the country out of tough temporary restrictions.
Ms Sturgeon confirmed the tiered system, similar to the one already introduced in England, could involve triggers that would require schools to close or implement blended learning – where children spend at least part of their time studying at home.
The new system will be debated by MSPs next week as they return from recess but could come into force as early as October 26, when temporary hospitality restrictions are due to expire across the country.
Speaking at her daily coronavirus briefing on Monday, the SNP leader insisted she would “strive to keep schools open” amid calls by the EIS teaching union for the framework to include trigger points for a return to blended learning.
“Within all the tiers, we will continue to take judgements on whether that is possible or not,” Ms Sturgeon said.
“We’ve always said that we cannot rule out, in parts of Scotland or Scotland overall, at any stage, reverting to blended learning for a period – but we want to avoid that if possible.”
The first minister said a “continuing acceleration” of the spread of Covid-19 would mean that “the further up the tiered approach you go, then considerations about what that means for schools will be ongoing”.
Ms Sturgeon said part of the reason for changing tact was to give people “greater certainty” over what restrictions may be needed at different times, and her announcement would set out the “basket of metrics” used to assess the situation.
The Scottish Government will look to apply “a public health informed judgement” in deciding any changes to the way schools operate in the future because keeping facilities open is in the “overwhelming interests of children and young people,” she said.
But the Scottish Conservatives called on Education Secretary John Swinney to bring a clear plan to the Scottish Parliament to be debated by MSPs.
The party’s education spokesman, Jamie Greene, said all avenues must be explored before schools are shut down because virtual learning “simple wasn’t working for so many” over the summer months.
“Schools shouldn’t be an easy target for the SNP to close,” Mr Greene said. “Another attempt to introduce part-time learning as the plan A for our young people will ring serious alarm bells for parents and teachers.”
Ms Sturgeon said she believed it was “really, really important” to keep schools open “as far as we possibly can” because even blended learning “is not as good for children as being in school normally”.
The first minister also said the Scottish Government would “continue to keep all options under review in Scotland” following new measures introduced in Wales, which she described as “effectively a lockdown”.
Ms Sturgeon indicated further restrictions will be needed to suppress Covid-19 in Scotland as well when temporary measures come to an end next week but warned against making direct comparisons between Scotland and Wales.
“It is not realistic to expect that we will go back to normality at that point,” she said. “The household restrictions will continue to be in place, I think, for the foreseeable future. It may be that we need to have further restrictions over and above that.”
Ms Sturgeon added: “They may be nationwide restrictions or they may be, as is the case right now, restrictions that vary in different parts of the country.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, Willie Rennie, said the first minister must win back the trust of the public “if we are to get on top of the virus”.
Mr Rennie said public confidence had been shaken by issues around the return of students, quarantine spot checks and suggestions by her own advisers that new measures may not be enough to bring the virus under control.
“We can’t afford any more false dawns,” he said. “The government needs to treat people like adults and be upfront with the evidence including the behavioural science.
“What’s more, businesses and individuals need clarity. People have made huge sacrifices. The Government should be open and honest about the future.”
Meanwhile, discrepancies in the number of Covid-19 cases reported in Scotland in recent days are due to tests being diverted away from the UK Government’s Lighthouse Lab in Glasgow, Ms Sturgeon said.
The first minister said the step was taken to ensure the laboratory, based at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, did not reach capacity.
Scotland recorded one death from coronavirus and 993 positive tests overnight into Monday and, on Sunday, just 316 new positive cases were reported.
Ms Sturgeon told the briefing the diversions were due to stop on Sunday and new cases should be included in Monday and Tuesday’s figures.
There were 754 people in hospital confirmed to have the virus, up 40 in 24 hours. Of these patients, 61 were in intensive care, down two.