AFTER a sustained period of low rates of deaths and new infections, and just as slow steps were being taken towards more freedom in contact and in reopening businesses, it is discouraging that Aberdeen should be returned to lockdown. To prevent almost quarter of a million people from visiting each other’s houses, and to prohibit them from travelling more than five miles from their homes, is no small matter.

If the renewed strict lockdown of a major city is a blunt instrument, it is one that the Scottish Government has shown no hesitation in wielding and, in doing so, proven itself swift, decisive and consistent with its own stated policies. As with localised lockdowns in parts of England, it demonstrates that any easing of restrictions is provisional and liable to revocation if circumstances dictate. That clear message is not merely theoretical or rhetorical, but a bald statement of necessity.

The purpose of lockdown was to contain and dampen the spread of the virus, to protect the most vulnerable through shielding, and to allow time for the restructuring of services – particularly the NHS – so that they would not be overwhelmed.

It was not intended, and could never have managed, to eradicate the disease, or confer immunity. Covid has not gone away, and the renewed rise in cases on the Continent suggests that relaxing restrictions is a balancing act that requires constant vigilance and, where necessary, local containment.

Given the requirements for restarting the economy, and the basic psychological difficulties of coping with a sustained, universal lockdown, things have to start cautiously returning to some trade-off with the disease. As things stand, the Scottish Government looks justified in having placed Aberdeen back into special measures, difficult though the decision must have been.

Blanket restrictions of this sort, which create so much difficulty for those not directly affected (outnumbering the cases by tens of thousands to each one) may be necessary now. They are, however, no long-term solution.

Instead, government should be focusing more on individual responsibility, which may mean a more rigorous policing of those who flout the rules. Those who, after donning their masks and queuing correctly before entering shops, then blithely ignore the requirement to maintain distance need to be reminded of their responsibilities. Penalties should be enforced on those who fail to self-isolate on their return from foreign holidays.

It is understandably difficult to maintain these rules in environments such as pubs, but those landlords who have made determined efforts to reorganise their businesses for their customers’ safety should not be penalised for the irresponsibility of those happy to throw caution to the wind. Local authorities already have ample powers to withdraw licences from unruly venues; the warning that they will not hesitate to use them to protect health in this emergency might win the attention of those which have been too casual in their approach.

As schools prepare to return after a long and damaging hiatus, the First Minister is surely right that education is a greater priority than the freedom to have a pint in a scrum by the bar. The example of Aberdeen’s footballers suggests that some young people, buoyed by their own sense of invulnerability and relatively low level of susceptibility to the disease’s worst effects, have forgotten that the rules – as with masks – are not primarily for their protection, but of those who are vulnerable to devastating outcomes.

That may seem like excessive caution, unnecessary for the majority, but it illustrates why Aberdeen had to reenter lockdown. If individuals take greater care with their own behaviour, such scattergun approaches may be avoidable, but they are inevitable if people do not abide by the rules, whether or not they think they have much relevance for their own circumstances. Scotland has come a long distance, but it cannot afford to lose its way at this critical juncture.