Mainland Scotland is being placed back in lockdown, with schools across the country ordered to stay closed, as part of “devastating” restrictions to try to combat the new, faster spreading strain of Covid-19, Nicola Sturgeon has confirmed.
The First Minister stressed the need to act “quickly and decisively” as she said without new measures being introduced hospitals could run out of capacity to deal with coronavirus patients in three to four weeks.
She announced a legally-enforceable stay-at-home order will apply for all of January in all areas currently under Level 4 restrictions – mainland Scotland and Skye.
People will only be permitted to leave their home for an “essential purpose”, such as essential shopping, caring for someone or if they are part of an extended household.
In addition to this, schools will be closed to most pupils until February 1 at the earliest – meaning an additional two weeks of home learning for youngsters.
In a further tightening of restrictions on gatherings, Ms Sturgeon said it was now only possible for two people from two different households to meet outdoors – instead of the limit of six people from two households which had applied previously.
This, however, does not include children aged 11 and under, who can still “play outdoors in larger groups, including in organised gatherings”, the First Minister said.
She added that “with regret” churches and other places of worship are to close, apart from for broadcasting services, funerals, weddings or civil partnerships
While up to 20 people will still be able to attend funeral services, wakes will not be permitted during January and the numbers allowed to attend a wedding or civil partnership will be limited to just five people.
People who had previously been advised to shield are now being told not to go into work at all.
Ms Sturgeon said the lockdown measures would be kept under close review but added: “However, I cannot at this stage rule out having to keep them in place longer, nor making further changes. Nothing about this is easy.
“I know how devastating restrictions like these ones are and I give an assurance that we will not keep them in place for longer than is absolutely necessary.”
Holyrood was recalled for the First Minister to announce the changes, which had earlier been agreed by a meeting of the Scottish cabinet.
With coronavirus cases increasing – a total of 1,905 more Scots tested positive in the previous 24 hours – Ms Sturgeon likened the situation to a race between the vaccine and the virus.
More than 100,000 people north of the border have already been given their first dose of the vaccine, with the new AstraZeneca one being rolled out from Monday.
Ms Sturgeon said that in the final days of 2020, between December 23 and 30, the number of cases had risen from 136 per 100,000 people to 225 per 100,000 people – a jump of 65%.
It is now hoped that by early May everyone over the age of 50, as well as younger people with specific underlying conditions, will have received at least one dose of vaccine – over 2.5 million people.
But Ms Sturgeon conceded the emergence of the faster-spreading variant of the virus had been a “massive blow”.
To help ensure the vaccine “wins the race” against the virus, she said it was essential to pick up the pace of the immunisation programme.
But she stressed it was still necessary to “slow the virus down”, adding: “Because it is now spreading faster, that means even tougher restrictions are necessary.”
The new strain of Covid-19 “already accounts for almost half of all new cases in Scotland,” Ms Sturgeon told MSPs.
Speaking about the situation in London and the south east of England, she said Scotland had the chance “to avert the situation here deteriorating to that extent but we must act quickly”.
The decision to keep schools and nurseries closed for most children until February 1 was the “most difficult of all”, the First Minister said.
The Scottish Government had already announced school holidays were being extended to January 11, with ministers having originally planned for remote learning until January 18 – a period which will now be extended by another two weeks.
However, schools will still be open for the children of key workers who cannot work from home, and for vulnerable youngsters.
Scottish Conservative Holyrood leader Ruth Davidson said the new restrictions were “hard news at a hard time, when the resilience of people has already been worn down over the past year”.
Meanwhile, she said parents would be “dismayed” by the extended closure of schools and the impact this would have on the “fractured education” of youngsters, who had to study for home for months during the initial lockdown.
Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard said: “The issue here today is not whether schools and school buildings are open or not, it is about how much preparation has been made by the Government for the continuation of our children’s education.”