Prisoners may be released from Scotland’s jails early if the coronavirus causes critical staff shortages, the Justice Secretary has confirmed.

Humza Yousaf told MSPs the dramatic step was being “actively explored” as a means of maintaining order within prisons. 

He also said all prison visits had been suspended to minimise the spread of the disease, potentially adding to tensions within the prison estate.

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Mr Yousaf was speaking ahead of MSPs consenting to emergency powers in Westminster’s Coronavirus Bill.

Holyrood unanimously supported the emergency legislation, which is intended to slow the pandemic, boost the NHS and cope with the deceased.

The bill, introduced in the Commons last week, removes barriers for health and social care workers to return to the frontline and relaxes regulations to take pressure off NHS staff.    

The powers include measures to allow authorities to enforce social distancing rules in a bid to suppress the spread of the virus.

Authorities will be able to cancel events and mass gatherings and close premises if necessary during the UK-wide lockdown.

Downing Street has said police will be able to impose £30 fines on gatherings of three or more, with fines of up to £10,000 in Scotland for premises prosecuted for staging events.

Expected to receive royal assent today, the bill also gives police officers the authority to detain potentially infectious people and force them to undergo Covid-19 screening.

Mr Yousaf said the “unprecedented” arrest powers could be invoked against individuals, events and public gatherings when there is a “serious and imminent threat to public health”.

Those found breaching public health regulations will face a fine or “other enforcement action”, he said.

The powers are due to come into force by the end of the month.

He said: “This includes powers allowing the police in Scotland to support and enforce public health measures, including powers to detain people and put them in appropriate isolation facilities if necessary to protect public health.

“The Bill also gives Scottish ministers the power to restrict or prohibit events or gatherings where incidence or transmission of coronavirus constitutes a serious and imminent threat to public health.

“These measures are unprecedented but we must take this action now to save lives.

“We are not doing so lightly and have taken this decision based on medical and scientific advice.”

The Scottish Prison Service (SPS) has implemented emergency pandemic measures, with inmates and guards showing Covid-19 symptoms being put into self-isolation.

Asked byTory MSP Liam Kerr how prisons would cope with a “critical number of staff being absent”, Mr Yousaf said: “We will have to look at every single measure.

“Let me be clear, just as the UK Government has looked at releasing prisoners or increasing the numbers on HDC (home detention curfew), so too in Scotland we cannot rule out releasing prisoners – if that is in the best interests of keeping our establishments safe and those who work in those establishments. So that is something we’ll be actively exploring.”

With prison visits suspended, the SPS is working on a dedicated helpline and digital and telecoms options to help familes maintain contact.

Scotland’s chief prosecutor, the Lord Advocate James Wolffe QC, said the epidemic would disrupt court business

He said the “great majority” of cases would be postponed, while people accused of crimes already in custody would  generally appear via video link.

If cases went ahead, the number of witnesses will be kept to a minimum.

Mr Wolffe told MSPs: “Where a trial cannot take place – and I have to be frank, that will be the great majority of cases which cannot otherwise be resolved – we will have no option but to defer that trial until the public health guidance allows business to resume, even if that means the accused has to remain in custody in the meantime if public safety demands it.”

He said the investigation of deaths was also being reviewed “with a view to relieving pressures on the medical profession”. 

Green MSP John Finnie urged Mr Yousaf to ensure private sector prisoner operators supported their workers through the crisis.

When MSPs later debated the Coronavirus Bill, Constitution Secretary Mike Russell praised the UK Government for heeding concerns over its original plan to set a two-year time limit to the powers, and switching to a six-month review instead. He said: “In creating the additional powers in this bill, we did not mean and we do not mean automatically to use them. We will be guided by the decisions at the appropriate time.”  

“These new measures are for the protection of us all and they are essential to slow down the spread of the virus.”  

 He added: “This new emergency legislation will help to save lives as we face this unprecedented crisis.  

 “It is only because of the extraordinary public health challenge confronting us, as a result of the global pandemic, that these measures have had to be considered.  

 “I am grateful that the Scottish Parliament supported the bill and we are committed to reporting on how and when the emergency powers included in the bill have been used.”

Tory MSP Murdo Fraser said: “It is in my view essential that both the UK Government and Scottish Government have the powers they need to tackle the unprecedented crisis.  

“We are not dealing with normal circumstances, we are dealing with exceptional circumstances.”

Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said the emergency powers are “clearly necessary to keep individuals and communities safe from the virus at this time”.

He added: “This legislation has significant implications for people with social care needs, staff and pupils in our education system and many more. It contains necessary interventions to slow down the spread of the virus, but they must not last forever.

“With this legislation in place, the Scottish and UK Government must now ensure they are working in harmony. Communication with the public is so important. We can’t afford to have mixed-up messages because of disjointed policies.”

Scottish Secretary Alister Jack welcomed Holyrood giving its consent to the “essential” legislation.

He said: “The UK Government and the devolved administrations are working closely together to tackle this crisis. We will get through this, but we all need to play our part.”

Earlier, Police Scotland Chief Constable Iain Livingstone said his officers would not hesitate to use the new powers to enforce the lockdown once they came into effect.

He told BBC Radio Scotland the police would rely on people doing as ey were asked in the meantime, but warned: “Those that don’t, we’ll challenge them, and when the powers are enacted, we will have no hesitation in using those powers if people continue to defy what is very, very clear advice.”

Under the new measures, people are only allowed to leave home to shop for basic necessities, to take exercise once a day, for medical reasons, to care for a vulnerable person, or to travel to essential work that cannot be done at home.

He said police were maintaining operations despite a rise in absences of both officers and support staff. 

He said: “At this point it hasn’t impacted on our ability to provide services, because we have started to move our officers and staff around.

“We’ve prioritised frontline response and at this stage, we are still in a position to provide policing right across the whole of this country.”

The Chief Constable said officers no longer needed at airports had been redeployed.

New recruits could also be deployed early after core training, and retired officers brought back as special constables.

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He said: “At the moment, I think we have enough capability within the service as it is but I rule nothing out.”

Asked how long he expects the situation to last, Mr Livingstone said: “It’s going to last as long as it takes the country to get through this enormous challenge from the coronavirus.”

“We know this is not going to be a short-term critical incident running for three days or four days, a week, this is going to be a sustained period and we need to be ready for it.”