Nicola Sturgeon called it ‘not the New Year statement I wanted to give’. The SNP leader addressed the Scottish parliament earlier this afternoon to confirm reports of a new, March-style lockdown across mainland Scotland. It came as 1,905 positive cases were recorded yesterday, though this is likely to be a significant under-calculation as most registry services are closed on Sunday. The positivity rate now stands at 15 per cent, up from 10.1 per cent on New Year’s Eve, and since Christmas there have been 289 deaths recorded in relation to Covid.
Against this backdrop, Sturgeon’s government is taking Scotland into the most severe lockdown since the outset of the pandemic. Mainland Scotland was already in level four — the top tier north of the border — and Sturgeon described the new restrictions as ‘an enhancement to level four’.
From tomorrow, Scots will, by law, be required to stay at home and may leave only for care or healthcare, essential shopping and exercise. Working from home will be mandatory unless your work cannot be done remotely. Those in the ‘shielding’ category most at risk — generally older people, cancer patients and those with severe underlying conditions — must not go to work at all. The chief medical officer will be sending this category a letter that will count as a ‘fit note’ for employers.
The border between Scotland and England will remain closed, with entry and egress permitted only for essential reasons. Places of worship will be shuttered, though funeral services with up to 20 mourners and wedding services with up to five celebrants will be permitted. There will be additional limits on freedom of assembly. Currently, up to six people from two households can meet outside in Scotland, but from tomorrow that will be cut to two people from two households.
Sturgeon said these measures would be ‘in place for the whole of January’, but she would not rule out extending the lockdown or enhancing it further.
The other key announcement was on schools, which were supposed to reopen on 11 January for online learning and thereafter classroom-based teaching. They will now remain closed until February. The Scottish government has come under fire for not doing as much as the UK Government to support pupils through remote learning. Today Sturgeon announced funding for another 70,000 laptops for low-income children.
She also updated Holyrood on the rollout of the vaccine, which she characterised as a ‘race’ against the virus. More than 100,000 Scots have received their first Pfizer jab, with the Astra-Zeneca vaccine beginning today. By early May, everyone over 50 and those under 50 with underlying conditions are expected to have received their first jab, with the rest of the population to follow.
In recent months, Scotland has been under more restrictive rules than most parts of England, and the prospect of a month of yet more draconian regulations will not be welcomed. There was some quibbling about the details of Sturgeon’s statement from the opposition but the Scottish Conservatives, Scottish Greens and Scottish Liberal Democrats remain broadly supportive of her approach, with Scottish Labour more sceptical. As Isabel Hardman and Katy Balls report, Boris Johnson is being lobbied by MPs on either side of the great Tory Covid divide (Boris is now set to make a TV address tonight). Sturgeon faces no such pressure, either from her own backbenches, or from the Scottish Tories, who have no libertarian wing like that in the English party.
That makes the politics of enhanced lockdown straightforward for Sturgeon. There are still open questions about the failure of previous restrictions, the situation in care homes, and the provision of promised support to schools and businesses.
However, with a few exceptions, the opposition has failed to land any blows on the government’s handling of the pandemic. In part, this is an endemic problem in the quality and energy of opposition politicians in Scotland, but also reflects the fact that no one wants to be seen as playing politics in the middle of a pandemic.