Mutant virus leads to post-Christmas lockdown

It is over not yet. Not by a long shot. The vaccine roll-out, talk of Christmas bubbles and rules relaxations may have created the impression that there was light at the end of the coronavirus tunnel. Last night’s announcement suggests there is still a long way to go.
Covid in Scotland: Update due on Christmas rules nicola sturgeonCovid in Scotland: Update due on Christmas rules nicola sturgeon
Covid in Scotland: Update due on Christmas rules nicola sturgeon

The harsh reality was spelled out during another sombre announcement that Nicola Sturgeon admitted made her “want to cry”.

A new strain of coronavirus far more infectious than previous variants and threatening to run out of control in other parts of the UK has forced the First Minister to act.

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At her media conference last night, which followed Boris Johnson’s address from Downing Street, she spelled out a new package of severe restrictions aimed at combating the new fast-moving threat.

Nicola Sturgeon announces tighter restrictions and a border closure to combat the more infectious strain of coronavirus.Nicola Sturgeon announces tighter restrictions and a border closure to combat the more infectious strain of coronavirus.
Nicola Sturgeon announces tighter restrictions and a border closure to combat the more infectious strain of coronavirus.

She announced that the Christmas "bubble" policy has been curtailed, with household mixing allowed on Christmas Day only. “Only use this flexibility if you really, truly need to,” she warned. “This new strain makes that message all the more important."

A ban on travel between Scotland and other parts of the UK – except for essential purpose will remain in place.

All of Scotland will enter Level 4 – the toughest of the county's five tiers of restrictions – for three weeks from one minute after midnight on Boxing Day morning.

Non-essential shops will close, as will cafes, restaurants and hairdressers. Orkney, Shetland, the Western Isles and other Island communities will move to Level 3.

Schools will open for keyworkers as normal, but the majority of pupils will not return on January 11, with online learning until at least January 18 and perhaps beyond.

The First Minister said she would be speaking to police and transport operators to see how the travel ban can be "strengthened" and enforced, but Assistant Chief Constable Alan Speirs later said enforcement of the travel restrictions would continue to be a "last resort". He added that the force would not change its approach to policing the restrictions.

Current restrictions mean it is illegal to travel into or out of council areas in Level 3 or Level 4 without a valid exemption. Police have the power to issue £60 fines to rule-breakers, although these are halved to £30 if paid within 28 days. Repeat offenders can face penalties of up to £960.

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Opposition leaders backed plans to impose tighter restrictions over Christmas, but called on Ms Sturgeon to close schools immediately and publish the evidence for the decision.

General secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) union, Larry Flanagan, welcomed the announcement of online learning from the start of the new term. "Given that the EIS has been calling for a 'firebreak' around the Christmas break, we view this announcement as being the correct one,” he said.

The First Minister explained that the new measures are aimed at preventing more cases of the new virus strain entering Scotland from other parts of the UK and at reducing the risk of it spreading within the country. Scientists said it was already becoming the dominant strain in the south east of England and was spreading faster than previously seen.

So far, 17 cases of the new strain have been identified in Scotland, but the First Minister warned: "We do not yet know how widely this new strain of virus is circulating in Scotland, but I think we have to be realistic that that is likely to be an understatement of its true prevalence right now.”

She said there was a "concern" that the new strain may be driving what appears to be faster transmission of Covid in some hospitals and care homes. Scientists explained that the new strain is 70% more transmittable that the first.

Ms Sturgeon described it as the "most serious and potentially dangerous juncture" faced since the start of the pandemic.

Without acting firmly and quickly, she warned, the new strain could lead to the NHS being overwhelmed and to more deaths. Mr Johnson had earlier announced similar measures in the south east of England which effectively means that many regions will return to the lockdown rules of November.

In the latest 24-hour period, 41 more deaths from coronavirus and 572 positive tests were recorded in Scotland. Across the UK, 534 deaths and 27,052 new cases were announced yesterday.

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Scotland has the lowest case rate in the UK, with 112.6 cases per 100,000 of the population. This compares with 571.7 in Wales, 219.6 in England and 174.9 in Northern Ireland. However, Ms Sturgeon insisted that lessons already learned from the pandemic underline the need to act quickly, warning that the new virus strain could very quickly "overwhelm us".

She added: "Please believe me when I tell you... I would not be standing here on the Saturday before Christmas announcing this if I did not think this was necessary."