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Daily Record
Daily Record
Liam Bryce

Nicola Sturgeon's tightened levels system and the alarming implications for Scottish football's fan return next season

Scottish football's route back to normality remains shrouded in uncertainty as the game faces up to a full year of locked stadium gates and empty seats.

It's been a brutal 12 months for clubs who, despite being allowed to keep playing, have been deprived of vital revenue streams and the sight of fans pouring through the turnstiles.

The quite incredible rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine across the country has instilled hope where there was none and the teased prospect that the end could finally be in sight.

Nicola Sturgeon, perhaps wisely, gave a wide berth to committing to the same dates for unlocking as Boris Johnson, with only April 26 offered up as the day Scotland may return to the levels system implemented in the latter months of 2020.

The framework set out a tiered approach to lifting restrictions ranging from relatively few measures at Level 0 to near-full lockdown at Level 4.

A small number of Aberdeen fans were allowed to return to Pittodrie earlier this season (Stephen Dobson/ProSports/REX/Shutterstock)

A statement from the First Minister last week outlined the Scottish Government's intention to return to this approach as the vaccine rollout continues.

Details within the full strategic framework, however, indicate the levels will be considerably tightened under new WHO guidance and in fear of the more transmissible UK variant.

Sturgeon expressed hope most areas of Scotland could move to level 3 on April 26, with perhaps some scope for level 2 in places.

But the document confirms the strengthened approach will "keep some areas in higher levels than they would previously have been for the same level of incidence, which we see as a necessary response to increased transmission of the new variant".

Under the original tier system, which was implemented by local authority area, a handful of clubs such as Ross County and Aberdeen were permitted up to 300 fans at test events when their Covid rate dropped to level 1 incidence late last year.

This allowed some punters in to watch their teams again but not in a way that would significantly benefit clubs scrambling to plug a financial blackhole.

But the reintroduction of supporters was short lived ahead of the winter surge in infections and the revised virus threshold looks set to make it even more difficult for stadiums to open again.

For example, under the old tiers, local authorities could move to level 1 when case rates in their area dropped below 75 per 100,000 people.

From April 26, the level 1 threshold has been tightened to 20 cases per 100,000 people.

To reach level 0, which under the old framework still brought restrictions on mass gatherings, the threshold has been defined as "near zero".

The WHO guidance, published before vaccines were approved and with which Holyrood has aligned, defines this as no confirmed cases within the past 28 days.

It could present particular challenges for clubs in Glasgow and others in the Central Belt, which as Scotland's most populous area has consistently suffered with some of the highest virus rates in the country.

Indeed, Glasgow's case rate dropped only to lower incidence between June and August last summer and had risen above the 20 per 100,000 threshold by August 31, remaining high ever since.

It's a similar picture in areas such as Edinburgh, Fife and Ayrshire among others.

Very few, if any, will still believe there'll be punters in stands before the end of this term - it's clear that ship sailed some time ago.

But with no criteria yet in place for the removal of the levels system, it raises the prospect clubs could face a real struggle in getting gates open again even next term.

There's been at least some optimism Hampden could welcome at least some supporters when Scotland make their long-awaited major tournament return in June but this would seemingly require a quite dramatic and sustained drop-off in Glasgow over the next few months.

Of course, it's hoped that high vaccination coverage and the continuation of strict measures for some time to come could considerably change the outlook.

Positively, it's already been shown that hospitalisations are falling faster than the government's own optimistic scenario.

Case rates, too, are not the only measure considered in loosening restrictions - the percentage of tests returning a positive result is also a key metric and it has fallen below 5 per cent across Scotland in recent days.

The government has repeatedly stressed a slow and steady approach to unlocking but as the threat of serious illness is lessened dramatically by vaccination there may eventually come a point where the levels system is no longer required.

It must also be noted that it's not yet clear that what will be possible within each of the new levels will exactly mirror what was possible in late 2020.

However, the message from Holyrood appears to be that there must be stricter measures for longer to suppress the new variant.

Clubs will hope for greater clarity when a more detailed routemap out of lockdown is published in due course, but what's already clear is that the full return of fans for next season is still far from guaranteed.

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