Scotland Covid update: Nicola Sturgeon asks Scots to limit socialising to three households ahead of Christmas

Nicola Sturgeon has asked Scots to limit social mixing to three households in a bid to reduce the spread of the Omicron Covid-19 variant ahead of Christmas.

The new measure will not be legally enforced, the First Minister announced in an update to MSPs at Holyrood on Tuesday.

Two people are now in hospital in Scotland with Omicron, she also revealed, as the number of confirmed cases rose to 296. The true figure is understood to be much higher.

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Businesses and hospitality premises will also face new legal requirements to enforce social distancing and reduce crowding, in what some labelled “another terrible blow” during the festive period.

First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon arrives for First Minister's Questions at the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood, Edinburgh. Picture date: Thursday December 9, 2021.First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon arrives for First Minister's Questions at the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood, Edinburgh. Picture date: Thursday December 9, 2021.
First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon arrives for First Minister's Questions at the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood, Edinburgh. Picture date: Thursday December 9, 2021.

But one epidemiologist questioned whether the new guidance will be enough, as Scotland enters a “very tight race” between the spread of Omicron and the ramped-up booster vaccination campaign.

The Scottish Licensed Trade Association (SLTA) said licensed businesses are now in a worse state than this time last year, and accused Public Health Scotland and the First Minister of “killing Christmas” with previous advice to defer festive parties.

The industry “desperately needs aid”, said SLTA managing director Colin Wilkinson, adding that a £100 million package announced by the First Minister will be “nowhere near” enough.

The First Minister called on the UK Government to release additional funding, saying the lack of compensation is “not acceptable in current circumstances”.

Professor Rowland Kao, Professor of Veterinary Epidemiology and Data Science at Edinburgh University, said the rapid spread of Omicron in Scotland makes it necessary to take restrictive measures before waiting for data around hospitalisations and deaths.

"These additional measures will also have benefits in accelerating the decline of the delta variant, which on its own was of some concern and continues to causes substantial numbers of cases in Scotland, and likely with higher hospitalisation rates than Omicron,” he said.

"Whether they are enough or not, remains to be determined and is at least partially dependent on a very tight race between booster vaccination uptake and omicron spread.”

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Ms Sturgeon has urged Scots to keep Christmas Day celebrations as “small as your family circumstances allow”.

She stressed she is not asking Scots to “cancel Christmas”, but urged people to cut down on interaction outside their own household in the run up to the festive period.

Ms Sturgeon told MSPs: "I want to be clear, I am not asking anyone to ‘cancel’ Christmas - but in the run up to and in the immediate aftermath of Christmas, I am asking everyone to reduce as far as possible, and to a minimum, the contacts we have with people in other households.”

She added: “We are not banning or restricting household mixing in law as before. We understand the negative impact this has on mental health and wellbeing.

"But we are asking everyone - and we will issue strong guidance to this effect - to cut down as far as possible the number of people outside our own households that we are interacting with just now.”

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The Scottish Government will introduce a legal requirement for businesses to take measures to curb the spread of Covid-19, the First Minister said.

More detail around this will be issued later this week.

In retail this will include measures to reduce crowding, protective screens, and enforced social distancing, Ms Sturgeon said.

In hospitality there will be a reminder to collect contact details for Test and Protect, and measures to avoid overcrowding at bars and between tables.

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A fund of £100 million will be made available to support businesses, especially in the hospitality and food industries, which suffer as a result of this.

The Campaign for Real Ale called the new measures a “terrible blow” for licensees, brewers and consumers.

"Any return to table service only risks destroying all the progress that has been made to rebuild Scotland’s once-thriving beer and pubs sector,” said CAMRA Scotland Director Joe Crawford.

“The industry now faces further cancellations, another downturn in custom and the inability to trade at a viable capacity if we see the return of table service.

"A £100m fund to help hospitality businesses is welcome but won’t be sufficient to compensate businesses at this crucial time when they were relying on decent Christmas trade to help them recover and rebuild.”

Mr Wilkinson of the SLTA welcomed the decision not to close hospitality businesses, but said a “great deal of uncertainty” remains.

“We have not been ordered to close our doors yet but many have no choice when so many bookings have been cancelled,” he said.

He added: “I cannot stress how serious the situation is – many of our members are in dire straits.

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"There will be no happy Christmas for those who are worried about the future and face the prospect of making staff redundant or, worse, pulling down the shutters.“It is not only operators who are affected by Government interventions – staff and those in the supply chain are also being dragged into the horrendous situation we are still in without any other restrictions looming on the horizon.”

Labour leader Anas Sarwar also called for “greater support” for businesses.

Scottish Conservative Leader Douglas Ross welcomed the £100 million fund announced by Ms Sturgeon.

He said: "Many Scottish businesses have been hammered by the change in guidance and it was vital that the SNP Government gave them extra support to prevent job losses.

"We need to know when this funding will come forward. Small businesses are crying out for help now and they need to know this money will reach them before Christmas."

The First Minister has previously asked Scots to “defer” Christmas parties, and urged people to get tested and take up vaccinations.

The Scottish Government aims to deliver booster vaccines to 80 per cent of Scottish adults, Ms Sturgeon said.

The programme will now be prioritised over flu vaccinations, and mass centres will be re-introduced.

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A number of other measures have been taken to reduce the spread of the Omicron variant.

The Scottish Government now recommends that visits to care homes are limited to just two households visiting a resident at any one time, and that visitors take a lateral flow test before each visit.

It is also recommended that no more than two people visit patients in hospital at any one time, and that they also test beforehand.

Despite recent lack of availability of lateral flow tests online, Ms Sturgeon said these are “easy to get hold of”.

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