Covid Scotland: Nicola Sturgeon issues urgent plea to Boris Johnson over return of furlough schemes

Nicola Sturgeon has issued an urgent plea to Boris Johnson to bring back furlough as she warned further restrictions may now be unavoidable.

The First Minister insisted the country “must not sleepwalk into an emergency” amid widespread fears over the alarming spread of the Omicron variant.

She said the return of restrictions on “higher risk settings” – thought to include pubs, nightclubs, larger concerts and football matches – “may now be unavoidable”.

The Prime Minister has agreed to hold Covid talks with Ms Sturgeon in coming days.

Nicola Sturgeon is seeking urgent talks with Boris Johnson

Speaking in Holyrood, Ms Sturgeon told Scots to stay at home “as much as is feasible”.

She said Omicron was “spreading faster than anything that we have experienced so far”.

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Addressing MSPs, the First Minister said: “The fact is business now needs the type and scale of financial support that was available earlier in the pandemic.

"However, there are simply no mechanisms available to the devolved administrations to trigger the scale of finance needed to support such schemes.

"We need the UK Government to act urgently, and in the same way some other countries are already doing.”

She added: “This now needs the urgent engagement of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor [Rishi Sunak].

"We must not sleepwalk into an emergency that for both health and business will be much greater as a result of inaction than it will be if we act firmly and strongly now.

"I’ve therefore written to the Prime Minister this morning appealing to him to put the necessary support schemes in place.

"Such is the urgency, I’ve asked to speak to him directly later today.”

In her letter to Mr Johnson, the First Minister said she was “profoundly concerned by the scale and immediacy of the threat posed by Omicron”.

She said it was spreading faster than the booster vaccine rollout, and added: “I also believe that restrictions on the operation of higher risk settings – while, of course, undesirable – may now be unavoidable.”

Ms Sturgeon said the situation would have a “massive impact on business”, adding: “Even without further restrictions, if left unchecked, Omicron will deliver a significant economic shock that will see lack of staff and pressure on already stressed supply chains lead directly to business failure.

"Frankly, if we do not get Omicron under control, we are sacrificing the economic recovery we all want to see.”

She said UK funding arrangements mean the devolved administrations “cannot establish at our own hand the financial packages on the scale needed”.

The First Minister added: “I am therefore appealing directly to you – and urgently – to re-establish UK-wide schemes for furlough or, alternatively, to establish a mechanism whereby the devolved administrations (subject of course to appropriate financial controls) can trigger such schemes, and to ensure we have access to the financial support needed to deploy these schemes.”

Asked to give more details on the “higher risk” settings where further restrictions may be unavoidable, a spokesman for Ms Sturgeon said: “Anywhere people congregate in larger numbers are, by definition, higher risk.”

Speaking in Holyrood, Ms Sturgeon appeared to hit out at Mr Sunak for travelling to California on official business.

She said: “What businesses want, and what businesses need more than anything right now, is the Chancellor of the Exchequer at his desk putting the financial support schemes in place that will stop them going to the wall.”

Mr Sunak, who is heading back to the UK on an earlier flight than planned, later tweeted: “I understand that this is a very concerning time for businesses up and down the country.

“My team and I held meetings with the hospitality sector earlier today. We’re listening to their concerns and will continue to work with them over the coming days.”

Ms Sturgeon previously announced £100 million to help businesses in sectors such as hospitality, but conceded this was “not enough”.

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross urged Ms Sturgeon to commit to “getting this vital cash to businesses before Christmas”.

He said: “Nicola Sturgeon is calling for more support from the UK Government before she’s even able to tell Scottish businesses when they’ll get funding from her government.”

A Downing Street spokesman said: “We are working closely with the Scottish Government on the shared challenge the new variant poses to us all across the UK. This has included a number of Cobra [emergency] meetings with the First Ministers and Deputy First Minister to co-ordinate, discuss and act on the latest data and information we have.

“In the coming days we will continue to engage and work closely with the Scottish Government because that is what people across the UK expect.

“We’ve acted rapidly to support and give the Scottish Government the certainty to spend additional money in the coming weeks – exactly as they have asked in our discussions – and we will continue to listen carefully as that co-operation steps up.”

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