Mainland Scotland will be placed in a full lockdown from midnight on Monday for the duration of January in an effort to stop the coronavirus pandemic spiralling out of control, Nicola Sturgeon has announced.
The first minister said in an emergency statement to Holyrood all Scotland’s schools would remain closed for the whole of January, shifting to online learning, because of the risks posed by the new Covid variant B117.
The new “stay at home” rules, mirroring the very strict controls imposed last March, would also be legally enforced and greatly restrict who was able to travel, the Scottish government’s cabinet agreed earlier on Monday.
While Scotland has not experienced the sharp escalation in the number of Covid patients in hospital seen in parts of England over the last week, the number of positive cases has risen to a new record high every day, hitting 2,464 on Sunday.
Sturgeon told MSPs she was now more alarmed about the threat posed by Covid-19 than she had been since March. She said there was “compelling” evidence the new variant was about 70% more infectious and could push up the R number of infections by 0.7.
She said the approval of two vaccines was “hugely positive and offers us the way out of this pandemic”, but the faster spreading variant was “a massive blow”. She added: “Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that I am more concerned about the situation we face now than I have been at any time since March last year.”
NHS boards were already under intense pressure: 96% of Covid-19 beds in Ayrshire and Arran were full, as were 60% of those in Greater Glasgow and Clyde, Borders and Lanarkshire health boards.
With the latest data delayed because of public sector holidays, she said a full update would not be available until Tuesday. However, in the week to 30 December, the seven-day incidence of cases per 100,000 people increased by 65%, from 136 to 225.
“That increased faster spread is undoubtedly driving the very serious situation we now face,” Sturgeon said. “Today’s case numbers – 1,905 new cases, with 15% of tests being positive – illustrate the severity and urgency of the situation.”
She added: “As government, our clear duty right now is to act to save lives and protect the NHS. We know that delay or prevarication in the face of this virus almost always makes things worse not better – even if it stems from an understandable desire to wait for more data or evidence.”
The tougher measures will come into effect across mainland Scotland, which is already under the toughest tier of Scotland’s alert system, level 4.
Scotland’s island groups, the Western Isles, Shetland and Orkney, would remain at level 3 for now, Sturgeon added, although all schools in the islands would also close for the time being; she said a spate of new outbreaks in Shetland was particularly concerning.
Opposition parties said support for schools, parents and businesses had to improve.
Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tories’ leader at Holyrood, said the Scottish children’s commissioner, Bruce Adamson, had warned children’s mental health life chances were being impacted by school closures. Richard Leonard, the Scottish Labour leader, said the implementation of online learning across Scotland was erratic and needed to be improved.
Sturgeon said they wanted to increase vaccinations of school and nursery staff not already included in the vaccination priority lists, to improve the chances that schools could reopen later this month, but she admitted the Scottish government could not change the UK-wide rules.
The decision to keep schools and nurseries closed would be reviewed in mid-January. She “desperately wanted” to get schools reopened; speeding up or expanding vaccinations depended on the availability of supplies.
She said 100,000 people in Scotland had already had their first dose; the Scottish government anticipated a million people would get one by the end of January, split between the Pfizer/BioNTech and Oxford/AstraZeneca versions.
Based on the new advice to delay the second dose to 12 weeks, it was now expected all 2.5m Scots on the priority list – those aged over 50 or with specific underlying conditions, would have their first dose by early May.
Business leaders urged Sturgeon to offer greater financial support, including for parents who may want to be furloughed to support children kept at home. While building sites, factories and offices would not be forced to close under the new lockdown, there would be significant impacts on firms.
Liz Cameron, the chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, said: “Today’s news is another blow to the private sector’s recovery from this pandemic. Whilst we fully appreciate the need for the Scottish government to act in response to the worrying rise in Covid cases, we cannot ignore the direct impact this will have on business and livelihoods.