Scotland could toughen highest level coronavirus rules, says Nicola Sturgeon

22 December 2020, 15:39 | Updated: 22 December 2020, 16:09

Nicola Sturgeon expressed concern over the new coronavirus variant
Nicola Sturgeon expressed concern over the new coronavirus variant. Picture: PA

By Patrick Grafton-Green

Scotland may toughen the highest level of coronavirus restrictions as concerns grow over the new highly infectious variant, Nicola Sturgeon has said.

The Scottish Government has already announced all of mainland Scotland will be under the strictest Level 4 restrictions from Boxing Day. 

The restrictions will be applied for three weeks but will be reviewed after 14 days, Ms Sturgeon said.

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The Scottish First Minister told MSPs at Holyrood: "To be blunt with Parliament and the public, the current Level 4 restrictions are not as stringent as the March lockdown.

"However, it seems that we are facing a virus that spreads much faster now than in March, so we need to consider whether the current Level 4 restrictions will be sufficient to suppress it."

Under Level 4 restrictions hospitality businesses will close for all but takeaways, and non-essential shops will also shut their doors.

Ms Sturgeon said "given the severity of the situation" the definition of non-essential retail was being expanded to include homeware stores and garden centres, apart from click-and-collect services.

And while current Level 4 restrictions prevent people from leaving their local council area unless this is essential, Ms Sturgeon said from Saturday the "strong advice" would be for people to "stay as local as possible and at home as much as possible".

She added: "We will be considering in the days ahead whether we need to place that advice in law."

With the Scottish Government also having decided to delay the return of most school pupils in the new term, Ms Sturgeon said this "precautionary approach" had been needed to give ministers time to assess the impact the new strain could have on schools and education.

She said the Government had taken the "difficult decision to delay the start of the new school term" to January 11 and to have "at least" the first week of studies online.

Ms Sturgeon added: "Our intention is that schools will get back to normal from January 18 - but we will require to keep this under review."

Speaking about the new, faster spreading variant of Covid-19, she said there was a "significant degree of confidence" among experts that it increases the R number - the average number of people infected by each person with the virus - by as much as 0.4.

She added: "Given that the R number in Scotland is already around 1, this is obviously a very real concern."

Ms Sturgeon said analysis suggested that, in the week beginning December 9, about 14 per cent of positive coronavirus cases in Scotland already had a gene linked to the new strain - adding it was "not unreasonable to assume that the proportion may be higher now".

The First Minister continued: "The very rapid spread in London and the South East serves as a warning of what we will face here if we do not take firm action to suppress the virus.

"We have a real concern that, without significant counter measures, we could be facing another period of exponential growth as we enter the new year.

"That would mean many more people catching Covid and, even without this new strain causing more severe illness, that would result in many more people needing hospital and intensive care. That would put an enormous strain on the NHS and lead to much more loss of life.

"To be blunt, that is what we have to act now to stop."

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