Nicola Sturgeon has confirmed that the Scottish government is introducing a legal requirement to stay at home from midnight tonight to remain in place throughout the entirety of January in the face of rising coronavirus cases.
Addressing the Scottish parliament this afternoon, the First Minister described the approval of the vaccinations and the discovery of the new variant of Covid as “two significant game changers in our fight against this virus”.
She stressed that the new variant had changed the situation and warned MSPs that the mutation, first identified in the South East of England, now accounts for almost half of all new Covid cases in the devolved nation.
Sturgeon said: “The advice of our clinical advisers is clear that the increased transmissibility of the new variant means that the current level four measures may not be sufficient to bring the R number back below one.
“It is essential that we further limit interaction between different households to stem the spread and bring the situation back under control… We must return for a period to a situation much closer to the lockdown of last March.”
She added: “This is not just about one single day’s numbers. We are now seeing a steeply rising trend of infections… I am more concerned about the situation we face now than I have been at any time since March last year.”
The First Minister told MSPs that while NHS services are currently coping, the situation is “fragile and it is getting more challenging” and warned that if cases continue to rise there is a “real risk of our NHS being overwhelmed”.
The new stay at home instruction means that anyone who can from home must do so, and the First Minister said it will only be a reasonable excuse to travel to work if that work cannot be done from home.
In the week from December 23rd, the seven-day rate increased by 65% from 135 cases per 100,000 to 225. Sturgeon told MSPs this afternoon that there have been 1,905 new cases and 15% of tests are positive.
The First Minister also said today that schools will remain closed, with remote learning ongoing, until February 1st. The SNP government had previously announced that pupils would receive online learning until January 18th.
On schools, she argued: “The overall level of community transmission is, simply, too high. We need to get community transmission down before schools can safely reopen. A period of online learning will also, in turn, help us to do that.
“The second reason is that there is still significant uncertainty about the impact of the new variant on transmission amongst young people – we therefore have to adopt a cautious approach at this stage.”
The decision on schools from the First Minister comes as the UK government faces calls to close schools in England. Six trade unions issued a joint statement calling for a pause in the return of school children to the classroom this morning.
All primary schools in London and some in surrounding areas are not set to open until January 18th, but others in Tier 4 areas across England have been ordered to open and welcome children for the start of term this week as usual.
Councils in some areas, such as in Kent and Cumbria, have urged the government to allow them to keep their schools closed. NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman said it was “very hard to tell” how many schools would be open.
Responding to the statement, Richard Leonard said: “The issue here is not just whether schools and school buildings are open or not. It is how much preparation has been made by her government for the continuation of our children’s education.
“It is about whether the remote learning materials which were promised back in July are ready now six months later. It is about whether teachers have the support they need, whether plans are in place and whether they have the resources they require to back it up.
“It is about how much support there is for working parents, what the plan for them. For example, does the First Minister have a plan to encourage all businesses to furlough all working parents to take the time off to support their children?”
The Scottish Labour leader also called for £500 Covid self-isolation support payments to be extended to a greater number of low-income workers, and highlighted data showing that just 23% of those who applied received the support grant.
Labour demanded on Sunday afternoon a fresh national lockdown for England, within 24 hours, that would include a “much clearer direction to stay at home, re-evaluation of non-essential services that are open and national restrictions”.
But the party has not backed the call for a pause to reopening schools. Labour’s Kate Green said this morning that the lockdown proposed by the opposition party would “try to get this virus under control and to keep children in class”.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson conceded during an interview on Sunday afternoon that the Covid tier system of restrictions is “probably about to get tougher” in the coming weeks, possibly with the introduction of a new Tier 5.
He declared today that there are “tough, tough” weeks ahead in the UK’s fight against coronavirus. He added: “There is no question that we are going to have to take tougher measures and we will be announcing those in due course.”
Downing Street has announced since the statement from the First Minister that the Prime Minister is recalling parliament for Wednesday and that he will hold a live televised coronavirus press briefing at 8pm tonight.
A spokesperson for No 10 said: “The spread of the new variant of Covid-19 has led to rapidly escalating case numbers across the country.
“The Prime Minister is clear that further steps must now be taken to arrest this rise and to protect the NHS and save lives. He will set those out this evening.”